The second volume of Desert Armour covers armoured operations in North Africa in 1942–43. When the first volume ended, Rommel’s Deutsche Afrikakorps (DAK) had just been defeated by the British 8th Army in Operation Crusader and fallen back to El Agheila. From the Allied perspective at the end of December 1941, the desert campaign seemed all but over. However, British attention was diverted to the Japanese offensives in the Far East and Rommel managed to receive a shipment of new tanks and fuel, which allowed him to mount a partially successful counteroffensive in Libya in the first months of 1942. Ironically, neither side was looking for further major armoured battles in North Africa – the German OKW and Italian Commando Supremo merely wanted Rommel to maintain an Axis foothold around the port of Tripoli, while the British (particularly Churchill) were eager to move on to bigger, more important projects. By disobeying orders and pushing first to Gazala and then to El Alamein, Rommel forced both sides to commit large numbers of tanks and personnel to a secondary theatre, at the expense of more pressing strategic concerns.
As with the first volume of Desert Armour, my primary focus is on the issues of armoured warfare, doctrinal development and the difficulties contemporary senior leaders had in employing tanks as part of a combined arms team. While assembling a robust, detailed campaign history of armoured actions in North Africa was also important, a good portion of this was necessary to examine the doctrinal and leadership dimensions. Earlier this year, I gave a presentation on Volume 1 of Desert Armour at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC, entitled ‘Searching for Doctrinal Solutions in a Wasteland’. While the German DAK came to the desert with a fairly well-established doctrine for armoured warfare, it did not map well to the theatre because of the lack of railroads, paved roads and other transportation infrastructure. German armoured doctrine developed in Europe assumed that a friendly-held railhead would usually be within 50–80km and that damaged tanks could be sent back by rail to Germany for repairs. However, none of that applied in North Africa and Rommel often found himself at the end of a 1,200km-long supply line, mostly served by Italian trucks. Consequently, the German DAK had to adapt its doctrine to North African conditions, sometimes with poor results (e.g. running out of fuel at critical moments and difficulties in maintaining their tanks in the desert).
In contrast, the British 8th Army entered the desert campaign with an unproven doctrine for armoured warfare, which sufficed against the Italians in 1940 but fared badly against Rommel’s DAK in 1941. Despite the success of Operation Crusader in December 1941, British armoured doctrine took a large step backwards in mid-1942, primarily due to the inability of 8th Army to properly employ their tanks. Rommel also made serious mistakes with his Panzers – usually by ignoring logistical factors – and the Battle of Gazala in June 1942 was marked by catastrophic tactical decisions by both sides. Rommel’s end-run around the French stronghold at Bir Hakeim resulted in the DAK with its back pressed to the wall and its supply lines interdicted by British minefields. Yet the British commanders, despite numerical superiority in tanks, fumbled one counterattack after another in the Battle of the Cauldron and Knightsbridge, until it was nearly all gone. The American-built Grant tank, armed with a powerful 75mm gun, not only failed to tip the balance but was slaughtered by German anti-tank guns. Emboldened by his unwarranted success in the Battle of Gazala, Rommel rushed to take Tobruk and advance toward Cairo before his masters in Rome and Berlin could stop him.
In discussing the Battle(s) of El Alamein, I tried to offer an analytic approach that emphasized the difficulties both sides had in breaching a fortified line in the desert. In France and Russia, the German Panzers were usually able to find an open flank to enable the kind of manoeuvre warfare they preferred, but that simply was not possible at El Alamein. Even if better supplied, the German armoured force was not trained or resourced to conduct costly frontal attacks on well-defended positions, hence the difficulty the DAK encountered at Tobruk in 1941 and Alam Halfa in 1942. Likewise, the British regarded their armour as an offensive tool, but were forced to use it mostly in dispersed, defensive roles in 1942. By the time of Operation Lightfoot in October 1942, the 8th Army was still having difficulty coordinating two armoured divisions in the offence, although their skill at tank-infantry cooperation had considerably increased. One of the most interesting – and neglected – aspects of El Alamein is the clash between the senior infantry officers and the armour officers over how to exploit the breaches in the Axis mine belt. It was Montgomery’s mistake to cram so many tanks into the inadequately cleared breach corridors, leaving the armour leaders no ability to manoeuvre and forced to exit the corridors straight into the waiting buzzsaw of German anti-tank guns. Multiple British armour regiments were decimated for very little gain and yet Montgomery and Bernard Freyberg threatened the veteran RAC officers with relief unless they complied with orders that ignored the actual tactical conditions on the battlefield.
Moving on to Tunisia – a much neglected theatre in Second World War historiography – I tried to mesh together the introduction of US Army armoured units onto the battlefield with the British 8th Army’s rather leisurely pursuit of Rommel’s defeated DAK from Egypt. The US Army arrived in Tunisia in dribs and drabs and mostly under British 1st Army command, which was also inexperienced in this theatre. Initially, there were no American division or corps-level leaders to direct US Army armoured operations and the units themselves were dispersed across the battlefield, in contravention of doctrine. The German Panzer units rushed to Tunisia initially put on a bravura performance at places like Tébourba and Sidi Bou Zid, but then fumbled badly at Hunt’s Gap in early 1943. Likewise, Rommel’s final counteroffensives in North Africa were poorly organized and failed miserably, adding to Montgomery’s reputation. Despite some more tactical missteps, the final Allied offensives in Tunisia demonstrated a much firmer grasp of combined arms and armoured warfare than had hitherto been the case. Even French armoured units, equipped with 1940s-vintage Somua S-35 tanks, managed to get in a few blows at the end. Also of note, the final Axis units to surrender in Tunisia were Italians, not Germans.
When looked at in holistic terms, Rommel’s unauthorized antics resulted in about 15 per cent of German armour production going to a secondary theatre of war, for very little strategic return. Sending Tiger tanks to North Africa simply resulted in providing the Allies with an intelligence windfall once they captured these new heavy tanks. Britain sent about 10 per cent of the tanks it built in 1940– 43 to the desert, which is surprisingly little. Essentially, the pre-war British Army placed too much faith in the 2-pounder gun as sufficient for tanks, then spent much of the war trying to rectify this problem. Lacking adequately armed British-designed tanks until late 1942/early 1943, the British Army was forced to rely heavily upon the American-built Grant and Sherman tanks. The campaigns in North Africa served as an incubator for Allied tank designs and armoured doctrine, but the lessons were not fully digested for a variety of reasons. On the Axis side, German tanks and tactics were deemed adequate against those of the Western Allies, although Italian armoured force development had clearly reached the end of the road.