World War II: Western Desert--Afrika Korps (1941-43)

Afrika Korps
Figure 1.-- The Erwin Rommel Deutches Afrika Korps prevented a British victory in the Western Desert. Sea-saw battles followed. The principal accomplishment of Rommel and the Afrika Korps was to teach the British and then the Americans the fundamentals of modern mobile warfare. The inability of the Italians to supply the Afrika Korps led to its defeat at El Alemaine. These young Afrika Korps troopers are resting some where in the Western Desert, probably during 1942. Their uniforms need to be suitable for the hot days and cool nights.

Hitler in an effort to prevent the collapse of the Italians in Libya ordered a small armored forece to Libya to be commanded by Panzer commander Erwin Rommel who had made a name for himself in France. Hitler at this time was focused on the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union. He had rejected the suggestions of Admiral Raeder and others who advocated an offensive in the Meditrranean to settle the war with Britain rather than invading the Soviet Union. He was prepared, however, only to spare a very small force to stabalize the situation in Libya. OKW formed the Afrika Korps (February 19, 1941). It was a decesion that set in motion the 27-month German campaign in North Africa. The Afrika Korps (the Germans used different names) was to be a small expeditionary force to support the Italian army and prevent the British from completing the seizure of Libya. At the same time, Primeminister Churchill weakened the British Desert Army by cimmiting firces to thec defense of Greece. The German force under Erwin Rommel began to arrive in Tripoli (March 22, 1941). Rommel was officially subordinated to the Italian commander in North Africa, although he often ignored the chain of command. His orders were to support the Italians and hold Libya. He was not authorized to launch an offensive into Egypt. Rommel was given only a small German force. His initial forcee was the 5th Panzer Regiment and a collection of small units. (The 5th Light Division was later redesignated the 21st Panzer Division.) Rommel organized his force into the 5th Light Division. Rommel struck even before all his force had arrived in Libya. His Africa Korps stopped the British and even though he has only a small force launched a counter-attack (March 30, 1941). Rommel drove the British back into Egypt. Here Rommel's innovative tactics and the superority of the German Panzers were critical. At this stage of the War, the Germans had mastered armored warfare and the British despite the figting in Poland and France had not. The British in particular failed to appreciate the importabce of anti-tank guns. Rommel was soon reinforced with the 15th Panzer Division. This provided Rommel's Afrika Korps with two German divisions and various small support units to support the Italian units. The Italians seemed unwilling to fight on their own, but along side German units many Italian units did stand and fight. The Erwin Rommel Deutches Afrika Korps prevented a British victory in the Western Desert. Sea-saw battles followed. The principal accomplishment of Rommel and the Afrika Korps was to teach the British and then the Americans the fundamentals of modern mobile warfare. The inability of the Italians to supply the Afrika Korps led to its defeat at El Alemaine. And Rommel's decesion to drive into Egypt significantly worsened the logistical situation, making it more difficult for the Italians to deliver supplies.

German Strategic Decisions


Italian Offensive

Benito Mussolini watching the stunning German victories in World War II decided to enter World War II. He declred war ion France and Britain (June 1940). At the time France was already defeated and about to fall. Mussolini wanted in on the War in an effort to get a share of the spoils. He assuned the British would quickly follow the French and surrender or be invaded by the triumful Germans. The Italian cololony of Libya birdered both French Tunisian and Egypt. Egypt was nominally independent, but Britain had remained to protect the Suez Canal. Mussolini wanted both Tunisia and Egypt. The war did not end as Mussolini anticipated. Frabnce surrendered to the Germabns, but Hitler did not irce Vichy to turn over Tunisia to the Italians. And the British not only did not surrebnder, but actually fought off the British in the Battle of Britain (July-September 1940). Mussolini without consulting Hitler, invaded Grecce (October 1940) and his poorly prepared army was driven backn into Albania. This infuriated Hitler, not only because it complicated the Balkans situation, but also because he wanted the Italians to attack the British in Egypt. The Italians had a large army in Libya on the Egyptian border, but it was poorly equipped and led. The Italians invaded Egypt (September 1940), but were stopped only a few miles inside Egyopt byb a small British force. The British after being reinforced struck bavk (Decemjber 1940). The Italians fronjt collapsed and the Britishb persued themn inton Libya,m taking Benganzi and opreoared to movecwest toward Tripoli.

Hitler Comes to the Aid of the Italians

Hitler's focus was on the upcoming Soviet canpaign, but the Italian disaster in Libya could not be ignored. As a result, in an effort to prevent the collapse of the Italians in Libya, Hitler ordered a small armored forece to Libya to be commanded by Panzer commander Erwin Rommel who had made a name for himself in France. Hitler at this time was focused on the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler had rejected the suggestions of Admiral Raeder and others who advocated an offensive in the Meditrranean to settle the war with Britain rather than invading the Soviet Union. He was prepared, however, to spare a very small force to stabalize the situation in Libya whike he delt with the Soviet Union. Hitler personally chose Panzer commander Erwin Rommel to lead a small force to assist the Italians in the Western Desert. He described Rommel as the most daring tank general in the Wehrmacht. Rommel was dispacted from occupied France.

Erwin Rommel

Erwin Rommel's father was a school principal. Erwin was interested in Zephlins. He insisted that Erwin attend a cadet school to prepare for the military. Rommel hada love affair as a young officer and a dughter was born. Rommel refused to marry her because of the impact on his career. During World War I there were many promotions and decorations. He preformed galantly in Italy and was awatded the "Pour de merit", the Blue Max, the highest Germany military decoration. After the War, Rommel stayed in the Army which ws severly limited by the Versailles Treaty. Military officers were not allowed to paticipate in politics, but were generally very conservative. After Hitler seized power, enormous resources were directed to the military. Many like Rommel felt that it now meant something to be a German officer. Hitler courted the Wehrmacht. After the SA was suppressed bu the SS in the Night of the Long Knves, German soldiers, includng Rommel, were required to tke a personal oath to support Hitler (1934). Rommel was impressed by the apparent NAZI success in revitalizing Germany in the 1930s. Rommel like many Germans looked on the anti-semnetic campaign as a negative thing, but thougt it was outweighed by the positive accomplishments of the regime. Officers like Rommel were enthused with the resources and new weapons. Rommel became a lecturer in tactical warfare. He wrote a best-selling book. He was appointed commander of the military academy. Rommel was made commander of Hitler's military headquarters (1939). He clearly had no insight into Hitler's thinking at this time. He told his wife, "As long as my generation who experienced the World War, you can be sure there will mot be another war." Rommel was responsibe for Hitler's security during the invasion of Poland. He was impressed with Hitler and described his "clarity in his treatment of problems". He seems to have revered Hitler and Hitler for his part admired Rommel. Although an infantry officer, Rommel was given a tank division in the Western offensive (1940). His became known as the Ghost Division because it moved so rapidly west. After the fall of France, Italy launched an attack on Egypt from their Libyan colony (September 1940). The Italians force which had no heavy tanks bogged down 60 miles into Egypt. The British launched a counter-offensive (December 1940) and in 8 weeks had decimated the Italians. Hitler chooses Rommel to lead a small force to assist the Italians. He described Rommel as the most daring tank general in the Wehrmacht. Rommel drspacted from occupied France. Hitler's focus was on the coming Russian canpaign. Rommel's orders were only to stop the British. Rommel's competance and NAZI propaganda made him a legend. The Desert War sea-sawed back and forth until Rommel was finally stopped at El Alemain (July 1942). Now it became a matter of logisics. North Africa had always been a secondary theater, but much of the tanks, fuel, and supplies were sunk by the British. British code breakers by 1942 were receiving details on the German-Italian convoys wgich were devestated by British submaries and air patrols. Vast quantiies of supplies from america, however, were reaching the 8th Army. Montgomery's offensive at El Alemain was protracted, but the German and Italian forces were gradually worn down (October 1942). Hitler refused to allow Rommel to withdraw. Rommel hesitated, but unlike Field Marshall Paulis at Stalingrad, Rommel ignored the orders and did withdraw, saving the Africa Corps. The German position in Africa became untenable when the Americans and British as part of Operation Torch landed in Morocco and Algeria (November 1942).

Formation

OKW formed the Afrika Korps (February 19, 1941). It was a decesion that set in motion the 27-month back and forth German campaign in North Africa. The Afrika Korps (the Germans used varios different names) was to be a small expeditionary force to support the Italian army and prevent the British from completing the seizure of Libya. OKW was focused on the East and did not want a major campaign in North Africa to divert resources. They only wanted to prevent an Italian defeat in Libya. Under Rommel's leadership the fight in the Western Desert developed into much more.

Arrival in Tripoli

The German force under Erwin Rommel began to arrive in Tripoli, meaning western Libya (March 22, 1941).

Command Chain

Rommel was officially subordinated to the Italian commander in North Africa, although he often ignored the chain of command. His orders were to support the Italians and hold Libya. He was not authorized to launch an offensive into Egypt.

Initial Force

Rommel was given only a small German force. His initial force was the 5th Panzer Regiment and a collection of small units. (The 5th Light Division was later redesignated the 21st Panzer Division.) Rommel organized his force into the 5th Light Division.

Orders

Rommel's orders were only to stop the British. This is why he was only given a small force. Neitherv Hitler or OKW wanted to open a major new ffront. Hitler wanted to focus everything on the effort to smsh the Soviet Uniion in a quick summer campaign.

Initial Fighting

Rommel struck even before all his force had arrived in Libya. Rommel used ruses to give the impression that he had a larger force that he actually had. He immeiately struck west at the British. His Africa Korps stopped the British and even though he has only a small force launched a counter-attack (March 30, 1941). Rommel drove the British back into Egypt. Here Rommel's innovatic tactics and the superority of the German Panzers were critical. At this stage of the War, the Germans had mastered armored warfare and the British despite the figting in Poland and France had not. The British in particular failed to appreciate the importance of anti-tank guns. Rommel was soon reinforced with the 15th Panzer Division. This provided Rommel's Afrika Korps with two German divisions and various small support units to support the Italian units. The Erwin Rommel Deutches Afrika Korps prevented a British victory in the Western Desert. Sea-saw battles followed.

British Aid to Greece

At the same time, Primeminister Churchill weakened the British Desert Army by commiting forces to thec defense of Greece. The Germans invaded Yugoslavia and Greece (April 1941). Churchill honored Britain's pledge to aide Greece. Thus the British firces in theWestern Desert werec weakened.

The Italians

The Italians seemed unwilling to fight on their own, but along side German units many Italian units did stand and fight.

Correct Behavior

Serious war crimes agaunst oopposing military forces and civulians have been recorded in mist of the campaigns Germany fought during World War II. The only campaigns that we have not noted charges of war crimes are the Norwegian canpain and the campaign in the Westwren DEsert. On several occassions he was ordered to commit war crimes, such as executing captured Free French prisoners. (Because of the peace treaty with Vichy France, Free French prisoners were considered guerillas.) The German and Italian refusal to recognize the French as belligerents and to treat them instead as francs-tireurs, civilians carrying concealed weapons. Apparently the Axis powers shot some captured Free French soldiers in North Africa. We can not find any setailed acounts describing such actions and providing actual numbers. The Itlians ininitated actiins against Libyan Jews once the War began, apparently outraged at pro-British sentiment. Italian authorities began actions against Jews which vaties as to their natinaloyu. We have no information on Afrika Korps involvement in these ctiins, although we have noted reports of German soldiets assaultung Jewish shop keepers. There was no organized German action against Libyan Jews. This began to change after Rommel’s seizure of Tobruk (June 1942) and invasion of Egypt. It looked for a while like Alexandria, Cairo, and the Suez Cnal would soon fall. Rauff was assigned to assemble an Einsatzgruppen to carry out 'executive measures on the civilian population'. As the Arab, Italian (in Libya), and French (in Tunisia) civilians were not a threat, this was a clear NAZI euphemism for the mass murder of North African Jews. The Deputy Kommandoführer was SS-Hstuf. Theodor Saevecke. The Holocaust by this time had evolved beyond ensalvement to murder. Events on the grond cut Rauff's mission short. The British 8th Army first stopped Rommel at El Alamein and then smashed the Afrika Korps forcing a retreat west of the survivors (October 1942). There the front stabilized for a few months after Hitler rushed reinforcements into Tunisia to stop the Allied armies moving east from the Torch landings (November 1942). As a result Rauff's Einsatzkommando Tunis was limited to Tunisia. Rauff immediately began the persecution of Tunisian Jews. [Patterson] As Rommel and the Afrika Korps advanced wast toward Suez and Egypt, SS commanders realized that there were Jews in Egypt and even more in Palestine beyond Egypt, some 0.5 million Jews. As a result SS authorities organized an Einsatzgruppe to kill Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine and Egypt. [Mallman and Cueppers, pp. 128-30.] The Einsatzgrupppe Ägypten was standing by in Athens, Greece, prepared to go into action as soon as the Afrika Korps reached Suez. The palm was to first exterminate the Jews of Egypt and then move into Palestine. Eventually the Jews in other Middle Eastern countries (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran wiuld experience similar fates. SS Obersturmbannfuehrer Walter Rauff was assined to lead the Einsatzgrupppe Ägypten. It only included 24 members, but the olan was to enlist Arab collaborators. This would allow 'mass murder would continue under German leadership without interruption'. The Arab collaborators would play promient roles in anti-Semitic radio propaganda, recruitimg Arab volunteers to staff killing operations, and in raising an Arab-German Battalion. Former Iraqi prime minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem were enrolled to play prominant parts. [Mallman and Cueppers, pp. 128-30.] It never seems to have occurred to these men and their associates what would be in store for the the Arabs in a world dominated by the NAZis with their race obsession and imperialistic ambitions. Afrika Korps commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, promised full co-operation to assisting Einsatzgrupppe Ägypten in the murder of the Jewish populations in areas he conquered. Rommel's willingness to work with the Eimsatzgruupe suggestsd that he was as every bit as committed to NAZI policiesc as the Wehrmnacht commanders on the Eastern Front. [Weinberg] Anticipating Rommel's victory in Egypt, an agreement was signed between the Afrika Korps and Einsatzgrupppe Ägypten (July 1942). It was virtually identical to the agreement May 1941 agreement between Reinhard Heydrich and Eduard Wagner that governed Einsatzgruppen-Wehrmacht relations on the Eastern front with Barbarossa. In exchange for logistical support, Einsatzgrupppe Ägypten was to serve under Wehrmacht command in front-line areas. [Mallman and Cueppers, p. 117]

Tobruk

Rommel's offensive was impeded by the resistance of the Australians in Tobruk.

British Offensive

A new British offensive pushed the Rommel back to Libya.

Legend

Rommel's competance and NAZI propaganda made him and the Afrika Korps a legend.

Supplying the Afrika Korps

Armies in World War II had to be supplied by rail and sea. Air supply could be used to supply surrounded units on an emergency basis, but could not deliver heavy equipment or the supplied needed for major forces over an extended period. Italy was the major Axis player in the Mediterranean area and even after the German took over the bulk of the North African campaign, it was the Italian navy supported by the air force that had the major responsibility of delivering supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa. [Sadkovich] The Royal Italian Navy organized and protected the convoys that supplied Rommel and the Afrika Korps. They faced formibable attacks by British aircraft, submarine, and surface units. And unknown to the Axis, Admiral Cunningham was getting Ultra intercepts, allowing him to effective use his limited forces to devestate the Italian convoys. The Italians proved unable to deliver adequate supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa. To preserve the Ultra secret, the British allowed some supplies to get through. They were so limited, however, that Rommel was force to take up a defensive position at El Alemaine and gradually Montgomery with extensive American support built up a far superior force.

Egypt

With supplies that got through the British blockade, Rommel launches a new offensive which this time took Tobruk. Ignoring orders from OKW, he plunged ito Egypt. Churchill was in Washington at the time and was devestated. Roosevelt asked what he could do. Churchill asked for tanks. Roosevelt rushed 300 Sherman tanks to the 8th Army at the time when American divisions were not yet fully supplied. Rommel pushed east, but was stopped at El Alemain (July 1942). Now it became a matter of logisics. North Africa had always been a secondary theater, but much of the tanks, fuel, and supplies were sunk by thge British. British code breakers by 1942 were receiving details on the German-Italian convoys wgich were devestated by British submaries and air patrols. Vast quantiies of supplies from America, however, were reaching the 8th Army. Montgomery had 1,000 tanks and 1,500 planes. The Africa Corps had only a small fracion of these resources. Montgomery's offensive at El Alemain was protracted, but the German and Italian forces were gradually worn down (October 1942). Hitler refused to allow Rommel to withdraw. Rommel hesitated, but unlike Field Marshall Paulis at Stalingrad, Rommel ignored Hitler's orders and did withdraw, saving the Afrika Korps from certain destruction.

Mongomery's Pursuit

The German position in Africa became untenable when the Americans and British as part of Operation Torch landed in Morocco and Algeria (November 1942). Hitler's initial reaction was to shoot Rommel and the other officers involved in the retreat from El Alemain. He then reconsidered this reaction. Mongomery did not conduct a hot pursuit of the retreating Afrika Korps. This allowed most of the men who got out of El Alemaine to reach Tunisia and the priotection of the Mareth Line.

Kasserine


Tunisia

Rommel's retreat, hoever, allowed the Germans to hang on in North Africa until May. This was, however, a phtric victory. In an effort to prevent defeat, Hitler committed German reserves in a hopeless effort. In the end, the defeat in North Africa proved extremely costly. In addition, not only were the German reserves used but large numbers of air transports were lost in an effort to support the Afrika Korps in Tunisia. All this was done at a time when the outcome of the War was in effect being determined on the Eastern Front.

Rommel Relieved


Accomplishments

The principal accomplishment of Rommel and the Afrika Korps was to teach the British and then the Americans the fundamentals of modern mobile warfare.

Logistics

It was the responsibility if the Italian to deliver supplies to Libya. The inability of the Italians to supply the Afrika Korps led to its defeat at El Alemaine. And Rommel's decesion to drive into Egypt significantly worsened the logistical situation, making it more difficult for the Italians to deliver supplies. The British bastion at Malta played a key role in interdicting the Italian

Sources

Lewin, Ronald. The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps (London, 1977).

Lucas, James. Panzer Army Africa (London, 1977)

Mallman, Klaus-Michael and Martin Cueppers. Nazi Palestine (New York: Enigma Books, 2010).

Patterson, Tony. "'Chivalrous' Rommel wanted to bring Holocaust to Middle East", The Independent (London), (May 25, 2007). This article was based on a two-part documentary series that was broadcast on Germany's ZDF television channel, entitled 'Rommels Krieg, Rommels Schatz'. The documentary was authored by Jörg Müllner and Jean-Christoph Caron.

Sadkovich, James J. The Italian Navy in World War II (Contributions in Military Studies).







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Created: 5:35 AM 7/21/2013
Last updated: 1:20 PM 8/15/2018