Section 2: Rommel's first offensive

Main purpose:

This section reviews the history of the German intervention in Africa during WW2, the logistic factors that affected the mission Hitler gave Rommel, and how Rommel's logistics affected his operations (although it might be better to describe it as how his operations affected his logistics).

Questions you may need to answer before reading:

  1. What is DAK?
  2. What is OKH?


Van Creveld begins by noting that the campaigns in Africa during WW2 are an important milestone in the history of military supply. For the first time, you had large, modern armies that had to have every ton of their supplies transported to them from the rear, first across the water, then across the sand (either by road or rail). Nobody could forage for anything in the middle of the desert, especially for factory-produced repair parts.

Van Creveld also notes the unique logistical problems with the North African theater of operations. In Operation Barbarossa it was 600 miles from the German-Soviet border to Moscow, but in Africa it was 1200 miles from Tripoli to Alexandria. Making matters worse, there wasn't much railroad track and there was only one road (which made that road a great target for enemy aircraft), so desert trails had to be used frequently, causing increased vehicle breakdowns. Additionally, German rations weren't suited to desert warfare (too much fat content), nor were German vehicles (frequent overheating and stalls). To illustrate this, van Creveld says that, in Africa, the life of a German tank engine plummeted from a minimum of 1400 miles to a minimum of only 300.

After talking about the basic logistical problems the Germans had to deal with in Africa, Van Creveld reviews the history of Germany's intervention in Africa. He starts with a PDSS conducted by General Ritter von Thoma in early October 1940. After careful study and reflection, von Thoma suggested four armored divisions, mostly to replace the ineffective Italians, but no decision was made (imagine the political delays in making a decision if we concluded that we needed to deploy a MAGTF to replace ineffective allied forces, especially if those allied forces were just a supporting effort in a larger war).

The issue came up again in early 1941. The Italians were getting their asses kicked, and Hitler, while he didn't really give a damn about North Africa compared to bigger fish like, say, Soviet Russia, was worried about the political consequences of an Italian defeat. He decided to send German forces to prevent anything catastrophic from happening to the Italians, and the British advance was halted.

Even the initial force that Hitler sent was hard to supply. The front stabilized 300 miles east of Tripoli (the port being used as a supply depot), so support operations were a pain, especially since the army was being resupplied entirely by trucks (and could ONLY be supplied by rails for railroads, and no fodder for horses). As van Creveld points out, this was 150% of the accepted maximum distance at which an army could be effectively supplied by motor transport. Even Mussolini pointed this out to the Germans, who ignored him, and, after reviewing the concept of operations, they told OKH they needed 1,170 two-ton trucks (coastal shipping straight to the front couldn’t significantly lower this requirement). Complicating matters, when Rommel arrived in Tripoli, he immediately asked for additional forces (which would require more support, also by truck). Over the shrieking protests of the quartermaster-general at OKH (who was, at this exact same time, trying to figure out how to support Operation Barbarossa, arguably the main effort behind the entire Second World War), Hitler agreed to give Rommel the trucks. However, he did this on the condition that Rommel not conduct any big offensives, since that would greatly increase his already-huge requirements.

From day one, Rommel's additional forces overloaded the supply chain, causing the Germans to begin negotiating with the Vichy French for additional support. After purchasing French trucks already located in Africa, Hitler tried to negotiate a transportation agreement for the use of French shipping and French ports. However, the port and transportation negotiations ultimately proved ineffective (some parts of the negotiations fell through completely). Making matters worse, Rommel went on the offensive in violation of his orders, and immediately started complaining about his supplies...things would only get worse. Van Creveld also takes a moment to note that these initial supply problems weren't due to shipping losses. He has the data to show that only 9% of supplies were lost at sea. Instead, this was a supply chain problem, with supplies piling up into an iron mountain of excesses at Tripoli, while shortages became worse and worse at the front lines.

By April, Rommel had captured the port of Benghazi. However, while Benghazi could handle a theoretical maximum of 2,700 tons a day (compared to Tripoli's 1,500 to 1,600), it was in range of British aircraft. All this caused Benghazi's actual capacity to fall to a maximum of 700 to 800 tons per day. In short, Benghazi did nothing to fix the supply problems, and Rommel's supply readiness continued to plummet.

Rommel's best chance to save his army was the capture of a bigger port, and the best candidate was the port of Tobruk. However, there were three problems with this. First, Rommel estimated he needed four armored divisions to take it down (i.e., the exact amount of forces von Thoma had estimated during his PDSS back in 1940), and, thanks to the main effort, Operation Barbarossa, he wasn't going to get them from the Germans (much less from the Italians). Second, even if Rommel had gotten those additional forces, he didn't have the port facilities to unload the extra 20,000 tons of supplies a month they would require just to sustain themselves. Third, as van Creveld points out, even if Rommel got the forces, conjured up the supplies to support them, and even captured Tobruk, Tobruk's theoretical maximum capacity for unloading (1,500 tons a day) was mostly on paper. In reality, it rarely exceeded 600 tons a day, so Rommel would have been right back where he started when he took Benghazi, but even farther away from his main supply depot.

After discussing Tobruk, van Creveld describes the deteriorating German situation in the Mediterranean. Shipping losses rose to 25%, and bombing had forced even the little bit of shipping to Benghazi to be diverted to Tripoli, keeping Rommel's only supply depot about 1,000 miles behind him. Van Creveld then describes the extreme finger-pointing that took place as the different agencies and people involved tried to blame the increased interception, sinking, and bombing of supplies on each other. However, as van Creveld points out, during this four month period, the Italians actually put enough tons of supplies ashore in Africa to supply Rommel's forces...there was just no way to move those supplies to the front lines.

The remainder of the chapter is basically an explanation of how, as the strategic situation deteriorated, the logistical situation improved. For instance, on the same day that Rommel ordered a general retreat, the DAK quartermaster's diary notes "supply situation favourable from every point of view". By the beginning of 1942, Rommel's supply lines had shrunk to 460 miles, and both the Germans and Italians had dedicated an insane proportion of military resources to supporting him (the Italians sent a four battleship, three cruiser, twenty destroyer convoy to escort just 20,000 tons of shipping to Libya, while the Germans gave him U-Boats straight from the Atlantic and aircraft straight from Operation Barbarossa).

Questions you should be able to answer after reading:

  1. Question goes here...

Capt Palmer's favorite quote:

"...Rommel, defying Hitler's explicit orders, had taken the offensive at the beginning of April. Catching the British off balance, he drove them out of Libya, invested Tobruk which he was unable to eliminate in his first assault, and finally came to a halt at Sollum on the far side of the Egyptian frontier. However brilliant tactically, Rommel's lightning advance was a strategic blunder. It failed to bring decisive victory, while adding another 700 miles to his already extended line of communications. As OKH had predicted, the resulting burden proved too much for his rear services to carry. In mid-May Rommel started complaining about his supplies for the first, but not the last, time."