Saturday, December 31, 2016

Africa – Axis and Allied Forces


The North African desert war highlighted another British vulnerability: its reliance on Egypt and the Suez Canal to reach its Asian interests, including food and raw materials from south and southeast Asia and oil from Persia (Iran) and Arabia. Threatening Suez meant threatening Britain’s ability to hold its own and keep fighting. But the desert war exposed major weaknesses in the Italian part of the Axis equation and also in blitzkrieg warfare itself, which proved inadequate over the long empty spaces of Libya.

The struggle began in September 1940 with an attack from Libya into Egypt by the Italian army, a large but ill-trained and immobile force with obsolescent tanks and aircraft. The British had fewer troops and offered only modest resistance, but the Italians halted after 60 miles to resupply and never resumed their advance. Britain scraped together additional troops, including some armor, for a “5-day raid” that turned into a major offensive. In 61 days the Desert Army advanced 500 miles along the coastal roads of the great hump of Libya, captured 130,000 Italian prisoners and mountains of supplies, occupied the key port of Tobruk, and pushed the Italians past Benghazi.

Two events conspired to reverse things. Churchill— alarmed that Hitler had drawn Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia into the Axis orbit and was preparing to help Mussolini in Greece and Crete—ordered troops from North Africa to Greece, a move that failed to hold Greece but weakened the Desert Army. Hitler meanwhile sent Erwin Rommel with two crack panzer divisions and air support to bolster Italy in Libya. Ever bold, Rommel immediately counterattacked, using vigorous flanking movements to retake all the ground just lost and more, except for Tobruk, which grimly held. In April 1941, having reached Egypt but with his fuel running low and defenses stiffening, Rommel halted.

Britain took the field again in late 1941 with a new commander, an infusion of Lend-Lease equipment, and fresh divisions. Rommel retreated to a point west of Benghazi, but the Desert Army, weakened by its own supply problems and the diversion of forces to the Far East to face Japan, could not follow through. Rommel was now avid to seize Suez, and he was confident that he could outmaneuver the British on the southern end of their defensive positions and stop their counterattacks by using the vaunted 88-mm antiaircraft gun as an antitank weapon. He therefore went on the offensive, grinding out a major advance and finally taking Tobruk.

The British stopped the bleeding only after fierce fighting at El Alamein, mere miles from Alexandria. The stage was thus set for the sixth and final push in this strange seesaw war. This began on October 23, 1942, when the British 8th Army, newly christened and under yet another commander (Bernard Law Montgomery), jumped off for an offensive that would ultimately clear Libya of Axis troops.

The Desert War revealed some hard truths about armored warfare. Because the vehicles consumed fuel that had to be hauled to the front, blitzkrieg worked best over short distances, as in Poland or France. Over North African distances, the system did not work; the result was a “rubber band” effect whereby armies stretched their supply lines to the breaking point and then “snapped back” to their original position. Also, blitzkrieg worked in Europe partly by sowing mass confusion among civilians, who clogged the roads and prevented mobilization and movement. In a thinly populated region such as North Africa, this did not happen, leaving enemy communications and transportation strained but intact. And the Germans enjoyed air superiority in Europe but not in the desert, partly because the Luftwaffe was busy attacking the island of Malta.

Rommel was a tactical but not a strategic or logistical genius. He did not have the strength or supplies to seize and hold the Canal or link with German forces in Russia, and most General Staff officers did not want him to try. In making the attempt, he exposed the entire Axis position on the African continent.



Barnett, Corelli, The Desert Generals (London, 1983)
Rommel’s North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942  by Jack Greene, Alessandro Massignani.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Luftwaffe und Rommel - Afrika Kommen


Messerschmidt BF.110D-1s in flight off the coast of North Africa.

 

On 14 February 1941 a new and more aggressive enemy appeared in the skies above Libya, the first twin-engined Messerschmidt Bf 110C heavy fighters of the Fliegerkorps X startling the thin-skinned armoured cars of the King's Dragoon Guards on reconnaissance forward of El Agheila. In fact German aircraft had been operating in Libya since January, but their numbers grew dramatically during the first two months of the year. The persistence of the Luftwaffe pilots in pressing home their attacks came as something of a shock for the British accustomed to the Regia Aeronautica. Private Harry Buckledee recorded the effect of a German air attack on British Marmon Harrington armoured cars:

One afternoon . . . I saw three [Me] 110s attack one of our troops, and in about two or three minutes they had destroyed all three cars. Our troop was sent to their assistance. I was anxious as I knew my mate, Lance Corporal Bob Ramshaw, from West Stanley, Durham, who had joined up the same day as me, was in that troop. All but two of the crews were dead or wounded. Bob was badly wounded but recovered from his wounds, although he had a leg amputated.

By late February near-daily Luftwaffe attacks had made Benghazi unusable as a port, forcing 13th Corps to rely for its supplies on the long road back to Tobruk and thence via sea or land to Egypt. HMS Dainty, bringing in stores to Tobruk, was sunk by Stukas on 24 February. These unwelcome events heralded the arrival of a small German land force – part of Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower) – designed to insert backbone into the Italian defence of Tripolitania. The commander of this force, the newly promoted Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, arrived in Tripoli by the ubiquitous Junkers Ju 52 transport plane – distinctive as much for its three motors as for its square, corrugated sides – from Rome via Catania in Sicily at midday on 12 February 1941. Flying at low level across the Mediterranean, Rommel noted a constant stream of Junkers crossing in the opposite direction, the aircraft having deposited supplies for the Fliegerkorps X build-up in Tripoli.

On 11 January, much against his will and following the disasters at Sidi Barrani and Bardia, a humbled Duce was forced to accept the offer of a German light (motorized) division to support the reinforcements that the Italians were even then shipping to Libya. These included the 132nd Ariete (‘Ram’) Armoured Division, with its complement of 6,949 men, 163 tanks (only 70 of which were the M13, the remainder the puny L3), 36 field guns and 61 anti-tank guns.

The original plan of the German armed forces high command, the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), was for Rommel's single light division to act as a Sperrverband (blocking formation) to prevent any further British advance towards Tripoli. But the 5th Division was in fact much more powerful than its British equivalent. It consisted of the 5th Panzer Regiment (three panzer battalions each with forty Mark III and Mark IV tanks) together with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion with armoured cars, a machine-gun regiment (again with three battalions), a battalion of the 75th Artillery Regiment and an anti-tank (Panzerjäger) regiment equipped with a mixture of mobile 20-millimetre cannons and the powerful 88-millimetre anti-aircraft/ tank gun. The 5th Light Division was, with 9,300 men, 130 tanks, 111 guns and 2,000 vehicles, a powerful formation, all the more so when led by a determined and capable commander. Hitler had insisted that Italian mechanized forces also come under Rommel's command, although Rommel himself was nominally subordinate to the Italian commander-in-chief in North Africa.

Erwin Rommel's orders were to stabilize the front and prevent the British from humiliating Mussolini any more than they had already done, by ensuring that Tripoli did not fall. He had received his orders a mere six days before his arrival in Libya from the Fuhrer and Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, the Wehrmacht commander-in-chief, in Berlin. Hitler showed Rommel British illustrated magazines describing Wavell's humbling of the 10th Italian Army in Cyrenaica. Sidi Barrani, Capuzzo, Bardia, Tobruk, Derna and Barce had fallen, and now Benghazi was threatened. The Italians were in no mental state to resist the British. Panic had set in among the troops in their haste to escape the British advance, and Tripoli was full of staff officers with packed suitcases seeking a quick exit back to Italy.

Rommel was an extraordinarily good choice for this command. ‘I picked him,’ remarked Hitler, ‘because he knows how to inspire his troops.’ This was true, although to a man his subordinate commanders and staff officers hated him, in part because of the demands he placed on them, and also because of his refusal to accept any attitude or behaviour on the battlefield that did not display the same thrusting aggression as his own. Not yet fifty years old, he was fit, highly motivated and experienced, having successfully commanded the 7th Panzer Division only months before during the invasion of France and prior to that in Poland. He was imbued with a personal dynamism and driving energy that set him apart from most of his peers. His three tactical principles, which he had learned in the First World War, developed through intensive study during the interwar period (including assiduous examination of the works of British commentators on mobile armoured warfare) and honed through experience in Poland and France, were: shock action, preferably against the enemy's weakest point, in which massive and overwhelming firepower against ill-prepared opponents would shatter their will to resist; surprise, by which the enemy would be thrown off balance by an unexpected move; and speed, in which the sheer pace of his operations left the enemy unable to react quickly enough to changes on the battlefield. In all operations of war he sought to do the unexpected, to deceive, surprise and bluff. ‘His magic word is speed,’ wrote a fellow officer of Rommel's tactics in France, ‘boldness is his stock in trade. He shocks the enemy, takes them unawares, overhauls them, suddenly appears far in their rear, attacks them, outflanks them, encircles them . . .’ The Germans even had a word for it: an enemy overwhelmed by these tactics was Gerommelt (Rommeled).

The First World War had taught Rommel that the psychological dimension to fighting was often more important in securing battlefield success than any other factor. If, by bold and decisive moves accompanied by overwhelming and concentrated firepower at the decisive point, he could persuade his enemy that all was lost, the battle would almost certainly go his way regardless of the true state of his forces. His personal courage in the face of the enemy was legendary, an inspiration to his men, and while his driving energy was often cursed, it also brought with it undoubted success, and it was success that soldiers – his own and his enemy's – respected more than anything else. He was undoubtedly an unusual man, and like all men of action was not cut out for the certainties or forms of peacetime soldiering. His intensity made him more suited to the battlefield, particularly where full rein could be given to his creativity. As Private Frank Harrison of the Royal Signals was to observe with not uncritical awe, ‘One man does not make an army, but not since Napoleon had a military commander been such a symbol of leadership and battlefield victory over superior forces as Erwin Rommel.’

On arrival at the Castel Benito airfield outside Tripoli in the stifling heat of the Libyan noon Rommel knew very little of the Allied strength in North Africa. All he had to go on was what the headlines in the British newspapers were telling him: Wavell had launched a brilliant overwhelming attack on Italian forces in eastern Libya, and nothing now stood between the forward British units on the Gulf of Sirte and Tripoli. For all he knew, a further advance was being prepared to seize Tripoli. On landing, therefore, he immediately deluged Graziani's successor, General Garibaldi (to whom he was, on paper at least, subordinate), with a flood of ideas to form a defensive line in the desert anchored on the Gulf of Sirte to block the route of a British advance on Tripoli and to allow space for the Luftwaffe to build up its strength around the capital. Garibaldi, who had only been in post for a day, dismissed the impetuosity of the German with the advice: ‘Go and see for yourself.’

Rommel did so. That very afternoon he and a small number of his staff flew by Heinkel 111 over the Gulf of Sirte, noting the Via Balbia, the metalled road hugging the coast from Tripoli to Bardia, built on the instructions of the late Italo Balbo, stretching out like a long black thread into the treeless distance. The flight confirmed Rommel in his determination to create a defence line at Sirte, 300 miles to the east of Tripoli and 160 miles west of the forward British positions at El Agheila. This would at least give him the ability to resist a British attack along the coast while collecting what armour he could muster to launch a counter-attack.

The vanguard of the 5th Light Division (Major General Johannes Streich), the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion commanded by Major Baron Irnfrief von Wechmar, together with the 39th Anti-Tank Battalion (Major Jansa) arrived in Tripoli on board the Saarfeld on 14 February, although the division would not be complete until mid-April. After disembarking his battalion from the 6,000-ton freighter during the night, von Wechmar was briefed by Rommel and was at Sirte by the 16th. Then, less than a week after his arrival, Hitler agreed to double the size of Rommel's force by adding to it the 15th Panzer Division, naming the combined force the Deutsches Afrikakorps (more usually rendered in English as Afrika Korps). At the same time, Mussolini having instructed his forces to fall in with Rommel's plans, the 10th Italian Corps – comprising the Brescia and Pavia Infantry Divisions, together with the newly arrived Ariete Armoured Division – began also to move forward. As the troops trickled into Tripoli over the coming six weeks, Rommel rushed them forward. On 5 March he wrote to his wife, Lucie:

Dearest Lu,
Just back from a two-day journey – or rather flight – to the front, which is now 450 miles away to the east. Everything going fine.
A lot to do. Can't leave here for the moment as I couldn't be answerable for my absence. Too much depends on my own person and my driving power . . .
My troops are on their way. Speed is the one thing that matters here.
*

For the troops of the Afrika Korps the journey by sea to Tripoli was short but dangerous. For Sergeants Krugel and Wolff of the 15th Motorized Infantry Battalion the crossing from Italy in early March had been made in the Alicante, an old tramp steamer running the Royal Navy gauntlet in the Mediterranean. Both men had been horribly ill, and attempted to take their minds off their seasickness by standing in the bows of the old tub looking out for mines and submarines. Lieutenant Joachim Schorm, commander of the 6th Company of one of the three panzer battalions arriving on the Marburg in the same convoy, entered the relative safety of Tripoli harbour on 10 March with considerable relief:

We enter the harbour at Tripoli. We have done it! Fifteen miles from us . . . an Italian merchant ship and two tankers were sunk by submarines. The scene in the docks is indescribably picturesque. Rommel and German officers in field grey, the Luftwaffe in khaki trousers, breeches, shorts, the Italians in every conceivable uniform . . .

Schorm had reason to be jubilant at his survival as in early 1941 the Mediterranean remained a British lake. On 16 April Royal Navy destroyers sank an entire convoy off Sfax, Tunisia, carrying elements of the 15th Panzer Division: the 115th Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Schutz) and the 33rd Artillery Regiment. Three hundred and fifty men were killed and 300 vehicles together with 3,500 tons of stores lost. Despite these risks by the end of March 1941 some 25,000 men, 8,500 vehicles and 26,000 tons of stores had arrived safely in Tripoli in 15 convoys, with a loss of 9 German ships sunk and 9 damaged. Nevertheless, between January and May 1941 the Germans and Italians lost 31 ships attempting to supply the Afrika Korps in North Africa.

A month later, while their tanks and other vehicles attempted the journey by sea, a vast Luftwaffe fleet of Ju 52 transport aircraft – 208 in total – brought together for the forthcoming airborne invasion of Crete, flew 3,500 soldiers of the 15th Panzer Division from Sicily directly to desert airfields outside Tripoli. It was a dangerous journey. Flying in groups of three less than a hundred feet above the choppy waves and at a steady 150 knots the German aircraft were easy prey for British fighters flying out of Malta. For Private Rolf-Werner Volker it was his first ever flight and a daunting prospect. The only safety devices were uninflated rubber life jackets the eighteen soldiers in each plane were instructed to place over their necks and tie around their waists. They were to inflate them manually only if they found themselves in the sea. The Ju 52 had no seats, the troops making themselves as comfortable as they could for the 180-mile flight on the floor of the aircraft among their kitbags and weapons.

Völker's worst fears were realized far out over the Mediterranean long after their Messerschmidt Bf 110 escorts had returned to Sicily. Suddenly, above the noise of their engines they heard the hammering of machine-gun fire. They were being attacked by British fighters. The pilot took evasive action, sharply twisting the plane from side to side, which threw men and equipment around the inside of the aircraft. Clinging on grimly for their lives they could see the British aircraft fleetingly through the windows in the fuselage, and sought a means to fight back. Taking a Spandau MG-42 machine gun from its packing they broke one of the windows and, feeding belt ammunition into the weapon, blazed away at the swooping enemy aircraft. As he did so, watching the tracer bullets from his weapon streaming into the sky, Volker realized that other men in other aircraft were doing the same thing: ‘I don't know whether we hit any of them but it was good for morale to be able to shoot back and they seemed to be backing off. Then our pilot suddenly banked and before I could stop firing I had put several holes in our own wing. Luckily, I didn't hit an engine or anything important.’

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Wehrmacht in Tunisia I


In late 1942, while Rommel’s forces retreated out of Egypt and Anglo-American forces converged on them from east and west, newly arrived German and Italian formations were trying to shore up the Axis presence in North Africa. The Axis had abandoned any ambition to hold on to Libya, let alone renew the offensive into Egypt. Its priority now was to maintain a bridgehead in Tunisia, and to keep the two Allied advances separate and thereby force them to use double the number of supply lines. Hitler believed this bridgehead was essential to keeping the Allies away from Italy, and in keeping Italy in the war.

While Field Marshal Montgomery continued his somewhat stately pursuit of Rommel in the east, the joint Allied force advancing from the west was slowed by the mountainous terrain of northwest Africa. Newly arrived Axis forces were thus able to establish a bridgehead well before the Allies reached Tunisia. The first German commander on the spot was Lieutenant General Walther Nehring. Nehring was placed in charge of the newly formed XC Corps, later renamed the Fifth Panzer Army, on 17 November, even though its initial strength comprised fewer than 25,000 German and Italian troops. Nehring countered the Allies’ initial attacks on the Tunisian bridgehead. The time bought enabled stronger German forces under Colonel General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim to reinforce the bridgehead. By the start of February 1943, over 100,000 Axis troops had arrived, including three new German army divisions and the remains of Rommel’s German-Italian Panzer Army. Facing them along Tunisia’s Western Dorsal were the British First Army, US II Corps and the French XIX Corps, which consisted of Free French colonial troops from North Africa. The Axis had temporary numerical superiority. This would disappear, however, as soon as Montgomery’s Eighth Army arrived from the east.

The Axis forces were at the very end of a very, very precarious supply line, across a Mediterranean Sea that the Allies now dominated unassailably. They had to go to desperate lengths to conserve what got through to them or what they already had. At one point, the 15th Panzer Division had to step in to forbid its men from trading pieces of uniform for goods from local Arabs, reminding them: ‘the uniform is the soldier’s robe of honour, and not some civilian rags to be chucked away’. Indeed, because Tunisia’s greater population density threw up new day-to-day challenges, the 15th Panzer Division produced a poem for its men fighting Allied ‘Panzers’ (tanks) the better to ensure they avoided firing on the locals accidentally:

Firing in Tunisia
Can bring trouble on your head!
You might not hit a Panzer
But an Arab’s hut instead.
Wear spectacles to help you,
And make sure you’ve got the nous
To fire on a Panzer,
And not an Arab’s house.

Rommel’s arrival in Tunisia caused friction between himself and Arnim, a stiff old-school Prussian who was contemptuous of the Nazi regime. Rommel, though his disillusionment with Hitler had already begun, was Arnim’s opposite in nearly every respect. Field Marshal Kesselring had his work cut out trying to get them to cooperate. Yet the Axis forces in Tunisia did hold advantages. Among them was a small number of the new heavy Mark VI Panzer, the Tiger, whose 88mm gun was much superior to the Sherman’s 75mm.19 The Tigers were a headline product of Germany’s now greatly improving armaments output. From late 1942, the top priority was armoured fighting vehicles. In September, Speer announced a monthly production target of 50 Tigers, six hundred of the new Mark V Panther medium tanks, 150 light tanks, and a mix of six hundred mobile assault guns and self-propelled artillery pieces. Tank factories were ordered to go over to a 72-hour working week.

Favouring the defenders even more was the Tunisian terrain. This was no longer war in the desert, but war across mountains and ravines. The Germans were particularly adept at placing their artillery and machine guns in commanding positions on ridges. Tunisian terrain guaranteed heavy losses for any army attacking it.

Even more so if that army was at the foot of a steep learning curve. The US army in Tunisia, under the overall charge of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, learned from its mistakes faster than the British learned from theirs in the Western Desert, but the process was still painful. The starkest contrast between German and US forces in Tunisia was that the German forces contained a large core of hardened combat veterans, particularly among the Afrika Korps, whereas the US army was overwhelmingly an army of newly recruited, uniformed citizens. The United States’ isolationist stance following the First World War, and the financial priorities of the interwar years, not least during the Great Depression, had debilitated the country’s armed forces. The danger of war and the German triumphs of 1939–41 had jolted the US army into developing an armoured-warfare capacity. However, the US army relied much less than the Germans on skilful manoeuvre and operational art, and much more on General Ulysses S. Grant’s eighty-year-old doctrine of grinding down the enemy with superior resources.

In order to do this as effectively and efficiently as possible, the US army organized itself along scientific management lines. This approach had advantages: for one thing, it did not suffer the adverse effects of having two high-command offices. However, the scientific approach also created a top-down command style that required officers to weigh up all relevant factors in any given battle situation before deciding which course of action to take. This left them little room for surprise, improvisation or initiative.

US army basic training was shorter than its German equivalent, and placed less importance on developing the men’s psychological and physical attributes. Instead, it sought to develop their skills in particular tasks, breaking down those tasks into smaller components. Nor, on the whole, were US soldiers placed in regionally based units, as German soldiers were. This extensively deprived the US army of the benefits to morale of raising, training and deploying soldiers from the same region together in the same unit. US NCOs were particularly inferior to their German counterparts, for the interwar US army had enjoyed far less social kudos than its German equivalent, and had failed to attract high-quality recruits in the numbers needed to create a core of high-quality NCOs.

On the other hand, at least private soldiers who proved themselves in battle were not held back from being promoted to NCO. And even before the United States entered the war, the army was taking further steps that would better enable it to meet the challenges of combat. There was colossal benefit, of course, in the industrial output of the globe’s most powerful economy. The army reduced the size of its infantry units, but buttressed their firepower, equipping them with extra machine guns and mortars, together with the highly effective ‘bazooka’ anti-tank rifle. Infantry divisions also became motorized with half-tracks and largely self-propelled artillery, while the Americans aped the Germans by making their armoured divisions less tank-heavy and more balanced.

Nevertheless, the Tunisian campaign harshly exposed the US army’s continued shortcomings. The Americans felt compelled by the terrain to disperse their armour rather than concentrate it. They had far to go before they could practise combined-arms warfare as proficiently as the Germans. Furthermore, because the Americans’ grasp of manoeuvre warfare was found wanting, they often tried to compensate with an offensive-minded attitude, leading to some recklessly ill-advised attacks. The Americans’ lack of experience in interservice cooperation was clear in the ineffective air support they provided for their ground troops. Nor, as yet, did they concentrate their artillery in the mass that was needed.

The Germans’ initially contemptuous view of the US army was coloured not just by their military judgment, but also by Nazi racial stereotypes about the ‘degenerate’ multicultural United States. ‘We fought the Ami [American] a few days ago,’ wrote Lance Corporal Siegfried K. of the 15th Panzer Division in mid-February 1943, ‘and destroyed over ninety of his tanks. We’ll blow him and all his Negroes and trash races to perdition.’ Ironically, however, the severe racial segregation that characterized the US army at this time kept its African-American personnel away from frontline combat units.

Alongside the US troops in North Africa were Free French forces, including skilled mountain fighters from France’s North African colonies. Such soldiers posed acute danger to Axis troops in the mountainous terrain of Tunisia. The other Allied contingent was the division-strong British First Army, under General Kenneth Anderson. The First Army was a formation drawn from the Home Forces, troops who had been trained in Britain while the Eighth Army had fought Rommel in the Western Desert. It exhibited several of the weaknesses in the Home Forces’ training and doctrine. For one thing, its troops suffered the shortcomings of the new British innovation of battle drill. Useful though this was, it was imparted to uneven standards across the different regiments. This was yet another symptom of the British army’s failure to create a system that disseminated good practice throughout its units. Nor did battle drill in itself enable British soldiers to achieve effective manoeuvre and firepower dominance on the battlefield. The British army’s inadequate dissemination of best practice was also apparent in the First Army’s failure to concentrate its artillery more effectively, and in its poor air support – defects the Eighth Army had suffered from but had since corrected. However, the Americans and the British First Army would prove faster learners than the Eighth Army. Further, General Alexander, in overall charge of the British land forces in North Africa, smoothed the learning process by alternating and coordinating attacks on the Axis from east and west after Montgomery’s forces arrived from the east. This helped the Allies to maintain constant pressure on the Axis while giving their own formations the opportunity both to reflect and to recuperate.

Wehrmacht in Tunisia II


In mid-February, Rommel and Arnim buried their differences long enough to mount a two-pronged counterattack against the Americans. Arnim unleashed Operation Spring Breeze, employing two Panzer divisions against US formations along the main Allied line of the Eastern Dorsal. At one point, 1,500 American troops were encircled and captured, and the Americans pulled back their whole line to the Western Dorsal. Rommel’s forces, the 15th Panzer Division and the Italian ‘Centauro’ armoured division now launched Operation Morning Air from the south, against US defences in the Kasserine Pass through the Western Dorsal. Rommel’s 88s beat off US counterattacks, and by 20 February, US defences at the pass had collapsed, the troops manning them fleeing with the loss of two hundred tanks. Then, however, the Americans began their ascent of that steep learning curve; their resistance stiffened, their artillery exacted heavy losses on the Panzers and Rommel was unable to exploit his success further. The field marshal later credited the Americans with the improvement they showed over the course of the battle: ‘Although it was true that the American troops could not yet be compared with the veterans of the Eighth Army. … They made up for their lack of experience by their far better and more plentiful equipment and their tactically more flexible command.’ Hans von Luck concurred, asserting in his memoirs that the Americans ‘adapted immediately to a changed situation and fought with great doggedness’. Rommel was also let down by Arnim; his Prussian colleague had refused to release part of one of his Panzer divisions to support him, even when Kesselring had ordered Arnim to do so. Nor, this time, had Rommel helped himself: rather than concentrating his attack on the Americans’ weakest point, as time-honoured German practice directed him to do, he had dissipated his offensive power by attacking at three different points.

Another sign that Rommel’s touch was wobbling came when Montgomery’s recently arrived Eighth Army repulsed his attack at Medenine on the Mareth Line on 6 March. Medenine was essentially an action replay of Alam Halfa, but with even higher German losses. ‘The Marshal has made a balls of it,’ Montgomery reportedly remarked. The Eighth Army was helped, as it had been since the summer of 1942, by complete air superiority, and by Ultra decrypts revealing exactly where the Germans would attack. Furthermore, the advent of the six-pounder gun had boosted the British army’s anti-tank capability.

The British had yet to master combined-arms operations fully. Among other things, their artillery was still not targeting the full depth of the enemy’s defences effectively enough, and they were not deploying their forward anti-tank guns quickly enough.35 Yet the Tunisian campaign was enabling the British, like the Americans, to climb the combined-arms learning curve. Indeed, by now both the British and the Americans were firmly shedding their initial gung-ho attitude to armoured warfare, providing their tanks with vital infantry cover, and coordinating their tanks and infantry increasingly effectively. In the air, the appointment of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Conyngham as head of the whole of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force enabled him to transfer best practice from his old command of the Desert Air Force and greatly improve air-ground coordination.

By mid-March 1943, the German army in North Africa had run out of road. The Axis supply basis in North Africa was already increasingly threadbare, and now Rommel and Arnim’s offensives had used up all the remaining fuel. The Axis forces, despite further reinforcement, were now outnumbered two to one. Such reinforcements as the Germans could get across to Tunisia could not alter the campaign’s impending outcome; rather, they were ‘committed to the flames’, as General Guderian later put it. A sign that the Germans knew the game was up was the German-Italian Panzer Army’s latest and last name change, as it was redesignated the Italian First Army and placed under the command of General Giovanni Messe; both this and the Fifth Panzer Army were now placed under Rommel’s command as Army Group Africa. Further attacks by Montgomery, and by US II Corps, now under General George S. Patton, did not make a decisive breakthrough, but did make good progress. With the collapse of the Mareth Line, abandoned by the Axis when the Italian First Army fled from it in disarray, the Allied armies in east and west linked up.

The Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean theatre, meanwhile, was being ripped to shreds. Between November 1942 and May 1943, it lost nearly 2,500 aircraft. This comprised over 40 per cent of the Luftwaffe’s entire strength as of 10 November 1942. Losses of this magnitude could not fail to affect the performance of the Luftwaffe in the east either, but in the Mediterranean they had the immediate effect of stripping Axis shipping of air cover. As a result, 623 Panzers, 1,719 vehicles, and 1,413 artillery pieces earmarked for the Germans in North Africa ended up on the bottom of the sea.

The Germans on the ground did not give up. In the middle of April, Corporal Karl B. of the 334th Infantry Division, a Kriemhild formation comprising Replacement Army units from various locations, wrote: ‘Our neighbouring regiment was at the wire and destroyed a breakthrough attempt. Now we’re expecting a visit in our sector too, but we’ll show the enemy what’s what. Up to now we’ve had no anti-tank weapons, but our poor bloody infantry have stood up to iron and steel.’ But fierce as the Germans’ resolve was, they could achieve no more than a holding action. By the standards of the North African campaign, the Germans’ losses were calamitous. ‘In the Wehrmacht report, my regiment was referred to by name: “Grenadier Regiment 754 particularly distinguished itself,”’ wrote Lance Corporal Karl B. two weeks later. ‘There isn’t much of the unit left now.’ By early May, the Tunisian campaign, and with it the German army’s war in North Africa, were over. Around 250,000 Axis troops went into captivity. Rommel, already back in Germany, was not among them, though Arnim was.

The end of the North African campaign, like the campaign as a whole, was more than a sideshow. More Axis troops surrendered in Tunisia than had surrendered in Stalingrad, even though only about half the 250,000 captured were combat troops, and only half the combat troops were German. The British army in particular had used the North African campaign to improve its tactics and organization, while the US army had used its final phase as an opportunity to begin tempering its troops in battle. Moreover, the Americans’ effective use of artillery presaged the overwhelming firepower that they and the rest of the Western Allies would employ in future campaigns. Both the British and US armies, then, had benefited greatly from North African ‘rehearsal space’.

The campaign’s closing phase also further exposed the new limits to the German army’s capability. Above all, its mastery of manoeuvre warfare could only achieve so much against an opponent with superior intelligence, air power and land-based firepower. Strategically, the German army now faced a likely Italian collapse and an Allied invasion of Axis-controlled Europe from the south. Axis hopes of a complete triumph in North Africa had been based on shaky foundations from the start, but equally, the Axis need not have been defeated quite so massively as it was. That the German army lost so many men and so much valuable equipment in Tunisia was ultimately the fault of Hitler and the high command, albeit the OKW rather than the OKH this time. Hitler had made his small OKW staff, particularly General Jodl, responsible for the Tunisian bridgehead, largely as a way of further putting the OKH more firmly in its place. Given the pressure the German army was under on the eastern front in early 1943, it is questionable how many more troops could have been spared for Tunisia. But the OKW could at least have done a better job of timing the reinforcements, still more of timing a withdrawal, the disruption from Allied air power notwithstanding. Ultimately, however, nothing the OKW might have done differently would have altered some even more basic truths about the Tunisian campaign. The task of supplying and coordinating a binational expeditionary force by sea was not one that naturally fitted the German military. It fitted even less when that same sea route was exposed to air attack so devastatingly. Yet the only alternative – conceding the field to the Allies in North Africa and allowing Italy to collapse – was one Hitler would not countenance.

Friday, August 5, 2016

“I was Rommel’s Barber” – Interview with Helmut Thomasite, an Africa Corp. Tanke

"I was Rommel's Barber" - Interview with Helmut Thomasite, an Africa Corp. Tanker

By Mike Burnside and Rick Martin "I was Rommel's Barber" Interview with Helmut Thomasite, an Africa Corp. Tanker by Mike Burnside and Rick Martin What did you do before the war? I was born in a very small town. It was so small that there were only several people rich enough to be able to afford cars.

Desert Knights – An Overview of the War in North Africa

Desert Knights - An Overview of the War in North Africa

Many people have never seen a real desert, one that extends for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Almost all have a concept in their mind of what it might be like. But just what is the desert? A description of the desert is like a description of any other type of terrain.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Darby’s Rangers – North Africa

Rangers train on the terrain of the 8 November assault at Arzew (U.S. Anny photograph).

Dieppe proved to be the only operation undertaken by Darby’s Rangers in accordance with Marshall’s original concept. In late July the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, under pressure from a president anxious for action against the Germans on some front, reluctantly bowed to British arguments for an invasion of French North Africa, code named Operation TORCH. As planners examined the task of securing the initial beachheads, they perceived a need for highly trained forces that could approach the landing areas and seize key defensive positions in advance of the main force.

Accordingly, Darby’s battalion received a mission to occupy two forts at the entrance of Arzew harbor, clearing the way for the landing of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division of the Center Task Force.

The performance of the Rangers in their first independent mission reflected their emphasis on leadership, training, and careful planning. In the early morning hours of 8 November two companies under Darby’s executive officer, Maj. Herman W. Dammer, slipped through a boom blocking the entrance to the inner harbor of Arzew and stealthily approached Fort de la Pointe. After climbing over a seawall and cutting through barbed wire, two groups of Rangers assaulted the position from opposite directions. Within fifteen minutes, they had the fort and sixty startled French prisoners.

Meanwhile, Darby and the remaining four companies landed near Cap Carbon and climbed a ravine to reach Batterie du Nord, overlooking the harbor. With the support of Company D’s four 81-mm. mortars, the force assaulted the position, capturing the battery and sixty more prisoners. Trying to signal his success to the waiting fleet, Darby, whose radio had been lost in the landing, shot off a series of green flares before finally establishing contact through the radio of a British forward observer party. The Rangers had achieved their first success, a triumph tempered only by the later impressment of two companies as line troops in the 1st Infantry Division’s beachhead perimeter.

Ranger losses were light, but the episode foreshadowed the future use of the Rangers as line infantry
While Allied forces occupied Northwest Africa and advanced into Tunisia, Darby kept his Rangers busy with a rigorous program of physical conditioning and training in night and amphibious operations. Rumors of possible raiding missions spread within the battalion, but, as December and January passed without any further assignments, morale rapidly declined. Many Rangers transferred to other units. As yet, the Army still had no doctrine or concept of the employment of such units on the conventional battlefield, or elsewhere, and American field commanders were more concerned about their advance into the rear of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps than in any program of seaborne commando raids.

In early February 1943 the Allied high command finally found a mission for the Rangers. Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s theater headquarters attached the battalion to Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall’s II Corps in Tunisia. Hoping to gather intelligence and mislead the enemy regarding Allied strength and intentions, Fredendall directed the battalion to launch a series of raids against the Italo-German lines. The Rangers struck first against the Italian outpost at Sened. On the night of 10-11 February three Ranger companies marched through eight miles of rugged Tunisian terrain to a chain of hills overlooking the position. After observing the outpost by day, the Rangers, about midnight, began a four-mile approach march, advancing to successive phase lines and using colored lights to maintain formation. At 200 yards the Italians spotted their advance and opened fire, but most of the shots passed harmlessly overhead. The Rangers waited until they were fifty yards away before launching a bayonet assault. Within twenty minutes, they had overrun the garrison, killing fifty and capturing eleven before withdrawing to friendly lines.

The raiding program was soon cut short by developments to the north. Within days of the action at Sened, the Germans launched a counteroffensive through Kasserine Pass, roughly handling the green American units and forcing Fredendall to withdraw his exposed right flank. After serving as a rear guard for the withdrawal, the Rangers held a regimental-size front across Dernaia Pass and patrolled in anticipation of a German attack in the area. It would not be the last time that field commanders, short of troops, used the Rangers as line infantry in an emergency.

When the II Corps, now under Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., returned to the offensive in March, the 1st Ranger Battalion played a key role in the Allied breakthrough. After spearheading the 1st Infantry Division’s advance to EI Guettar, the Rangers found the Italians blocking the road at the pass of Djebel eI Ank. The terrain to either side of the position appeared impassable, but Ranger patrols found a twelve-mile path through the mountains and ravines north of the pass to the Italian rear.

During the night of 20-21 March, the battalion, accompanied by a heavy mortar company, followed this tortuous route, reaching a plateau overlooking the Italian position by 0600. As the sun rose, the Rangers, supported by the mortars, struck the Italians from flank and rear, while the 26th Infantry made a frontal assault. The enemy fled, leaving the pass and 200 prisoners in American hands. After patrolling and helping to repulse enemy counterattacks from a defensive position near Djebel Berda, the Rangers returned to Algeria for a rest. Shortly afterward, the Axis surrender of Tunis and Bizerte concluded the North African campaign.