The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man… Thomas Robert MALTHUS

All About Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel(6)…

Siege of Tobruk…

The following siege of Tobruk lasted 240 days, with the garrison consisting of the Australian 9th Division under Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead and reinforced by all the British troops who had withdrawn to the port city, bringing the defenders to a total of 25,000. Impatient to secure success, Rommel launched repeated small-scale attacks. These were easily defeated by the defenders. Rommel would later criticise the Italian High Command for failing to provide him with the blueprints of the port’s fortifications (which the Italians had built before the war), but this was due to his surprising advance so far beyond the agreed point, hardly allowing them time to produce the plans. Reflecting on this period, General Heinrich Kirchheim, then commander of the 5th Light Division, said: „I do not like to be reminded of that time because so much blood was needlessly shed.” Kirchheim had been reluctant to launch further attacks on Tobruk, as the cost of earlier assaults was very high.

Rommel remained optimistic that success was imminent. In his memoirs, he claimed that he immediately realised that the enemy was determined to cling to Tobruk; however, this seems to be in doubt. In a letter to his wife dated 16 April, he wrote that the enemy was already abandoning the town by sea, and he remained confident that the enemy were not going to defend the town until well into April. In reality, the ships arriving at the port were not evacuating the defenders but unloading supplies and even some reinforcements. A letter of his written on 21 April,, suggests that he was beginning to realise this while the arrival of the Italian blueprints of fortifications provided further grounds for discouragement. Nonetheless, Rommel continued to insist that success was imminent. His relations with his subordinate commanders were at their nadir at this point, especially with Streich, who was openly critical of Rommel’s decisions and refused to assume any responsibility for the attacks. Rommel began holding a series of courts-martial, though ultimately he signed almost none of the verdicts. This state of affairs led Army Chief Walther von Brauchitsch to write to him that instead of making threats and requesting the replacement of officers who „hitherto had excelled in battle”, rather „… a calm and constructive debate might bring better results”. Rommel remained unmoved.

At this point Rommel requested reinforcements for a renewed attack, but the High Command, then completing preparations for Operation Barbarossa, could not spare any. When Chief of Staff General Franz Halder also told Rommel before the latter left for Africa that a larger force could not be logistically sustained, Rommel had responded „that’s your pigeon”. Now Halder sarcastically commented: „Now at last he is constrained to state that his forces are not sufficiently strong to allow him to take full advantage of the ‘unique opportunities’ offered by the overall situation. That is the impression we have had for quite some time over here.” Angry that his order not to advance beyond Maradah had been disobeyed and alarmed at mounting losses, Halder, never an admirer of Rommel, dispatched Friedrich Paulus to (in Halder’s words) „head off this soldier gone stark mad”.

Upon arrival on 27 April, Paulus was initially persuaded to authorise yet another attack on Tobruk. Back in Berlin, Halder wrote: „In my view it is a mistake” but deferred to Paulus. When the attack, launched on 4 May, seemed to turn into a disaster, Paulus intervened and ordered it halted. In addition, he now forbade Rommel from committing forces in any new attack on Tobruk and further ordered that the attacks were to halt until regrouping was completed. No new assault was to take place without OKH’s specific approval.

Rommel was furious with what he perceived as the lack of fighting spirit in his commanders and Italian allies. However, on the insistence of Paulus and Halder, he held off further attacks until the detailed plans of the Tobruk defences could be obtained, the 15th Panzer Division could be brought up to support the attack, and more training of his troops in positional warfare could be conducted, For Streich, however, it was too late. He was transferred from command of 15th Panzer. When he met Rommel for the last time as he was taking his leave, Rommel told him that he had been „too concerned for the well-being of your troops”; Streich shot back: „I can recognise no greater words of praise”, and a new quarrel ensued. After the decision was made to hold off attacks on Tobruk for an indefinite period, Rommel set about creating defensive positions, with Italian infantry forces holding Bardia, the Sollum–Sidi Omar line and investing Tobruk. The mobile German and Italian formations were held in reserve to fight any British attacks from Egypt. To this end, Halfaya Passwas secured, the high water mark of Rommel’s offensive. An elaborately prepared great assault was scheduled for 21 November 1941, but this attack never took place.

Whereas the defenders of Tobruk could be supplied by sea, the logistical problems of the Afrika Korps greatly hampered its operations, and a concentrated counterattack southwards by the besieged Allies might have succeeded in reaching El Adam and severing the lines of communication and supply of the Axis forces at Bardia, Sollum and Halfya covering the Egyptian border. General Morshead, however, was misled by intelligence overestimates of the German forces investing Tobruk, and so no major action was attempted.

General Wavell made two unsuccessful attempts to relieve Tobruk (Operation Brevity (launched on 15 May) and Operation Battleaxe) (launched on 15 June). Both operations were easily defeated, as they were hastily prepared, partly owing to Churchill’s impatience for speedy action. During Brevity the important Halfaya Pass was briefly recaptured by the British but was lost again on 27 May. Battleaxe resulted in the loss of 87 British for 25 German tanks in a four-day battle raging on the flanks of the Sollum and Halfaya Passes, with the British being unable to take these well-fortified positions.

In August, Rommel was appointed commander of the newly created Panzer Group Africa. His previous command, the Afrika Korps, comprising the 15th Panzer Division and the 5th Light Division, which by then had been redesignated 21st Panzer Division, was put under command of Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell, with Fritz Bayerlein as chief of staff. In addition to theAfrika Korps, Rommel’s Panzer Group had the 90th Light Division and six Italian divisions, the Ariete and Trieste Divisions forming the Italian XX Motorized Corps, three infantry divisions investing Tobruk, and one holding Bardia…

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