All About Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel(8)…
Second German offensive: Battle of Gazala…
Following General Kesselring‘s successes in creating local air superiority and suppressing the Malta defenders in April 1942, an increased flow of vital supplies reached the Panzer Armee Afrika. Previously it had been receiving about a third of its needed supplies for several months. With his forces thus strengthened, Rommel began planning a major push for the summer. He felt the very strong British positions around Gazala could be outflanked, and he could then drive up behind them and destroy them. The British were planning a summer offensive of their own and their dispositions were more suited for an attack rather than a defence.
The British had 900 tanks in the area, 200 of which were new Grant tanks, whereas Rommel’s Panzer Army Africa commanded a mere 320 German, 50 of which were the obsolete Panzer II model, and 240 Italian tanks, which were no better than the Panzer IIs. Therefore Rommel had to rely predominantly on 88 mm guns to destroy the British heavy tanks, but even these were in short supply. In infantry and artillery Rommel found himself vastly outnumbered also, with many of his units under-strength following the campaigns of 1941. In contrast to the previous year, the Axis had more-or-less air parity.
On 26 May 1942 Rommel’s army attacked in a classic outflanking Blitzkrieg operation in the Battle of Gazala. His Italian infantry assaulted the Gazala fortifications head on, with some armour attached to give the impressions that this was the main assault, while all his motorized and armoured forces outflanked the positions to the south. On the following morning Rommel cut through the flank and attacked north, but throughout the day a running armour battle occurred, where both sides took heavy losses. The attempted encirclement of the Gazala position failed and the Germans lost a third of their heavy tanks. Renewing the attack on the morning of 28 May, Rommel concentrated on encircling and destroying separate units of the British armour. Heavy British counterattacks forced Rommel to assume a defensive posture and not pursue his original plan of a dash north for the coast. On 30 May he attacked eastwards to link with elements of Italian X Corps which had cleared a path through the Allied minefields to establish a line of supply. On 2 June 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division surrounded and reduced the Allied strongpoint at Bir Hakeim, capturing it on 11 June. With his communications and the southern strongpoint of the British line thus secured, Rommel attacked north again, forcing the British back, relying on the minefields of the Gazala lines to protect his left flank. On 14 June the British began a headlong retreat eastwards, the so-called „Gazala Gallop”, to avoid being completely cut off.
On 15 June Axis forces reached the coast eliminating any escape for the Commonwealth forces still occupying the Gazala positions. With this task completed, Rommel set off in pursuit of the retreating Allied formations, aiming to capture Tobruk while the enemy was confused and disorganised. Tobruk, isolated and alone, was now all that stood between the Axis and Egypt. The defenders were the 2nd South African Infantry Division and some disorganised units recovering from the Gazala battle. On 21 June, after a swift, coordinated and fierce combined arms assault, the city surrendered along with its 33,000 defenders, including most of the South African 2nd Division. Only at the fall of Singapore, earlier that year, had more British Commonwealth troops been captured. Hitler made Rommel a Field Marshal for this victory.
By this time, Rommel’s gains caused considerable alarm in the Allied camp. He appeared to be poised to deliver a crippling blow to the British by conquering Egypt. The Allies feared Rommel would then churn northeastward to conquer the valuable oil fields of the Middle East and then link up with the German forces besieging the equally valuable Caucasian oil fields. However, these required substantial reinforcements that Hitler refused to allocate. Ironically, Hitler had been sceptical about sending Rommel to Africa in the first place. He’d only done so after constant begging by naval commander Erich Raeder, and even then only to relieve the Italians. Hitler never understood global warfare, despite Raeder and Rommel’s attempts to get him to see the strategic value of Egypt.