Section 3: 1942: Annus Mirabilis

Main purpose:

This section looks at how the logistics lessons Rommel learned (or didnít learn) in 1941 affected his operations in 1942.

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Van Creveld begins by summing up the German situation at the very end of 1941. Operation Barbarossa was stalling out, and the United States had just entered the war against the Axis. Some people argue that at this point you can just look at manpower and industry statistics alone and confidently say that the war was now almost mathematically unwinnable for Germany. It was just a question of how long it would take them to lose. Other people argue that by pouring resources on Barbarossa Hitler might have been able to win quickly in the east, then turn around and concentrate everything in the west before we could bring our infinite resources of men and machines to bear against him. But what Van Creveld is playing at is this...whatever maps Hitler was looking at and sweating over in January of 1942, we can safely assume that they were maps of Russia, not North Africa.

As Van Creveld points out, the situation in North Africa was now more or less meeting Hitlerís intent from his original orders to Rommel. Rommel still had enough forces to keep the British from kicking the Italians back into the Mediterranean, he still had enough space to maneuver in defense of Axis possessions in Africa, his supply lines were shorter and more manageable, and every supply problem that had affected him in 1941 now affected his enemies instead. Rommel immediately began to plan another offensive.

As a sign that Rommel had learned something from his experience in 1941, he began by requesting 8,000 additional trucks from OKH (the four armored groups in Operation Barbarossa at this exact same time only had a combined total of 14,000). However, when OKH denied the request, Rommel went on the offensive anyway. By 29 January, he was back in Benghazi. By 13 February he had stopped in El Gazala since the front line troops could no longer be resupplied with ammo. He was 900 miles away from Tripoli. Luckily for Rommel, Benghazi was now able to operate at full capacity, so a third of Rommelís supplies now only had to move 280 miles to reach the front.

This could have been a happy ending for Rommel. He had advanced to a port capable of more-or-less properly supplying his forces, and had more than met higherís intent. And Van Creveld points out that there were no similar ports to capture anywhere in the east anyway (the problems with Tobruk having been discussed already). Any advance farther to the east was bound to end in logistical disaster. Rommel immediately planned to continue his advance farther to the east.

At this point, even the incompetent Italians saw the logistical problems with a continued advance. They asked Rommel how he planned to supply his army, and he said he didnít know (his answer was basically ďthe support services will find a wayĒ, an elegant demonstration of how little Rommel knew or cared about supply and logistics).

This brings Van Creveld to the two logistics problems the Axis now had to deal with in Africa. First, they had to secure ports close enough to the front to support the army. If Rommel wasnít capturing ports that could unload his supplies, he was just adding to the distance his supplies had to travel before reaching him. Second, they had to guarantee the safety of shipping. There was no problem shipping supplies to Tripoli and Benghazi, hundreds of miles to the rear...the Italians actually got most ships through...but the situation farther east, where supplies could realistically reach the front lines, would eventually cause Tobruk to be called ďthe cemetery of the Italian NavyĒ. This brings van Creveld to the Italian plan to delay Rommel from launching his ill-advised offensive, and how the Axis high command had to create a compromise between Rommel and the Italians.

The Italians proposed the following plan to solve both of the problems discussed above. Rommel would stay in place to build up his forces and supplies for a better-planned operation to seize the massive port of Alexandria, which would solve all future port capacity problems in Africa. In the meantime, the Axis main effort in the Mediterranean would be to capture Malta (a major Allied naval base, which was preying on Axis shipping). The problem with this plan was that building up Rommelís forces would mean increasing his supply requirements beyond what Tripoli and Benghazi could handle (this also would have made it impossible to stockpile supplies for an operation). Additionally, it would have meant adding even more trucks to move the extra supplies, and Germany just didnít have the trucks for it. But the bottom line of the Italian plan was that, regardless of building up Rommelís forces or supplies, Rommel would have to stay in place for a while...the possibility of capturing Alexandria in the future was just the bait to get Rommel to stop advancing.

As a sort of final note on the possible push to Alexandria in the Italian plan, Van Creveld suggests that, ironically, the Italian plan might have been logistically possible if the Axis had just gotten rid of the Italians, who were essentially dead weight, and replaced them with more Germans (increasing their tactical capabilities without increasing their logistical requirements). And if you look back to the last section, this was exactly what General von Thoma had suggested during his PDSS in 1940. But even if the extra forces didnít arrive, the supplies didnít get stockpiled, the Italians didnít get replaced with Germans, and Rommel just stayed exactly where he was while the Axis went after Malta, the Italian plan would have still let Rommel do what he was originally told to do...stabilize the theater enough so that Hitler wouldnít have to think about, much less worry about, North Africa.

Against all advice and experience, Rommel went back on the offensive on 26 May. He recaptured Tobruk by 22 June, and, with it, captured some enemy supplies. However, Tobruk was even less useful than it had been originally, because another logistical problem, the lack of oil for the Axis navy, caused shipping across the Mediterranean to fall by two thirds. The supplies reaching Africa dropped from 150,000 tons per month to 32,000, and fuel shortages meant that those supplies were unloaded all the way back at Tripoli. Rommel was in a logistical position that required him to either retreat or to advance in the blind hope that he could capture enough supplies from the enemy to keep moving toward Egypt until he had won the entire war in Africa. He made it 400 miles before grinding to a halt at Alamein on 4 July due to a combination of supply problems and sheer exhaustion.

At this point, Van Creveld reviews the problems Rommel faced during this pause at Alamein. First, the closest large port, Tobruk, was still hundreds of miles to the rear, and couldnít handle enough supplies to support him. Second, there werenít enough trucks to move supplies from the ports to the front. Third, though captured railways could be used to move supplies, they only moved a third of what they needed to. Fourth, the ports closer than Tobruk were small. And fifth, all ports from Tobruk to the front lines were extremely vulnerable to air attacks on shipping...this resulted in the Italians trying to go to the safer ports of Benghazi and Tripoli, 800 and 1300 miles behind the front. When Rommel demanded that they send the ships straight to Tobruk, shipping losses quadrupled. After emergency resupply plans failed to do anything except reinforce the nature and severity of the supply problems, and after Hitler forbade any retreat, Rommel could do little but wait for the end to come.

Van Creveld finishes the section by describing the hopelessness and bureaucratic bickering that characterized the final phases of the war in North Africa, and notes how terrible Rommelís supply readiness was at the beginning of the battle of El Alamein.

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Capt Palmerís favorite quote:

"...OKH, Rintelen, and even Mussolini warned Rommel that any fresh advance would again disrupt his supplies. For the second time running, the German general disregarded the warning and on 29 January, after another lightning stroke, his forces re-entered Benghazi where they were fortunate to recapture some of their own stocks. The rest of the story can be read in the diary of that paradigm of military efficiency, his own DAK. On 9 February, 100 per cent supplies could no longer be guaranteed to the troops, and by the next day tactical developments had overtaken logistical possibilities to such an extent that, because of the enormous distances and chronic lack of vehicles, no more ammunition was reaching the forward troops. On 12 February the DAK quartermaster angrily demanded an urgent interview with Rommel. On 13 February it was announced that the advance would stop at El Gazala..."