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(9)…

DRIVE TO EGYPT…

Rommel determined to press the attack on Mersa Matruh despite the heavy losses he had suffered at Gazala and Tobruk. He also wanted to prevent the British from establishing a new frontline, and felt the weakness of the British formations had to be exploited by a thrust into Egypt. This decision met with some criticism, as an advance into Egypt meant a significant lengthening of the supply lines. It also meant that a proposed attack on Malta would have to wait, as the Luftwaffe would be required to support Rommel’s drive eastwards. Kesselring strongly disagreed with Rommel’s decision, and went as far as threatening to withdraw his aircraft to Sicily. Hitler agreed to Rommel’s plan, despite protest from Italian HQ and some of his staff officers, seeing the potential for a complete victory in Africa. Rommel, apparently aware of his growing reputation as a gambler, defended his decision by claiming that merely to hold the lines at Sollum would confer upon the British a distinct advantage, in that they could more easily outflank the positions at Sollum and the overseas supply lines would still have to be routed via Tripoli unless he secured a front further east.

On 22 June Rommel continued his offensive eastwards and initially little resistance was encountered. Apart from fuel shortages, the advance continued until Mersa Matruh was encircled on 26 June, surrounding four infantry divisions. One of the divisions managed to break out during the night, and over the next two days some elements of the remaining three divisions also slipped away. The fortress fell on 29 June, yielding enormous amounts of supplies and equipment, in addition to 6,000 POWs.

On 25 June Auchinleck had assumed direct command of Eighth Army and decided to form his main defensive line at El Alamein, where the proximity to the south of the Qattara Depression created a relatively short line to defend which could not be outflanked to the south because of the impossibility of moving armour into and through the depression. Rommel continued his march eastwards, but with the supply situation steadily worsening and his men exhausted after five weeks of constant warfare, the offensive on El Alamein seemed in doubt. On 1 July the First Battle of El Alamein started, but after almost a month of inconclusive fighting both sides, completely exhausted, dug in, halting Rommel’s drive eastwards. This was a serious blow to Rommel who had hoped to drive his advance into the open desert beyond El Alamein where he could conduct a mobile defence. The Eighth Army suffered higher casualties in the fighting around El Alamein, some 13,000, compared with Axis losses of 7,000 men, 1,000 of which were Germans, but Rommel could afford the losses to a much lesser degree.

More significantly, Rommel only had 13 operational tanks by the time he reached El Alamein. Although he was only a few hundred miles from the Pyramids, he knew he didn’t have the resources to push forward. On 3 July, he wrote in his diary that his momentum had „faded away.”

Allied attack: Second Battle of El Alamein…

Summer standoff…

After the stalemate at El Alamein, Rommel hoped to go on the offensive again before massive amounts of men and material could reach the British Eighth Army. Allied forces from Maltawere, however, intercepting his supplies at sea and the Desert Air Force kept up a relentless campaign against Axis supply vessels in Tobruk, Bardia and Mersa Matruh. Most of the supplies reaching the Axis troops still had to be landed at Benghazi and Tripoli, and the enormous distances supplies had to travel to reach the forward troops meant that a rapid resupply and reorganisation of the Axis army could not be done. Further hampering Rommel’s plans was the fact that the Italian divisions received priority on supplies, with the Italian authorities shipping material for the Italian formations at a much higher rate than for German formations. It seems the Italian HQ was uneasy with Rommel’s ambitions and wanted their own forces, whom they at least had some control over, resupplied first.

The British, themselves preparing for a renewed drive, replaced C-in-C Auchinleck with General Harold Alexander. The Eighth Army also got a new commander, Bernard Montgomery. They received a steady stream of supplies and were able to reorganise their forces. In late August they received a large convoy carrying over 100,000 tons of supplies, and Rommel, learning of this, felt that time was running out. Rommel decided to launch an attack with the 15th and 21st Panzer Division, 90th Light Division, and the Italian XX Motorized Corps in a drive through the southern flank of the El Alamein lines. The terrain here was without any easily defensible features and so open to attack. Montgomery and Auchinleck before him had realised this threat, and the main defences for this sector had been set up behind the El Alamein line along the Alam El Halfa Ridge, where any outflanking thrust could be more easily met from overlooking defensive positions.

Battle of Alam El Halfa…

The Battle of Alam el Halfa was launched on 30 August, with Rommel’s forces driving through the south flank. After passing the El Alamein line to the south, Rommel drove north at the Alam el Halfa Ridge, just as Montgomery had anticipated. Under heavy fire from British artillery and aircraft, and in the face of well prepared positions that Rommel could not hope to outflank due to lack of fuel, the attack stalled. By 2 September, Rommel realized the battle was unwinnable, and decided to withdraw.

Montgomery had prepared to pursue the Germans but in the afternoon of 2 September, he gave Corps commander Brian Horrocks clear orders to allow the enemy to retire. This was for two reasons: to preserve his own strength and to allow the enemy to observe, and be misled by, the dummy preparations for an attack in the area.Nevertheless, Montgomery was keen to inflict casualties on the enemy and orders were given for the as yet inexperienced 2nd New Zealand Division, positioned to the north of the retreating Axis forces, and 7th Armoured Divisionto attack on 3 September. The attack was repelled, however, by a fierce rearguard action by the 90th Light Division and Montgomery called off further action to preserve his strength. On 5 September Rommel was back where he had started, with only heavy losses to show for it. Rommel had suffered 2,940 casualties, lost 50 tanks, a similar number of guns and perhaps worst of all 400 trucks, vital for supplies and movement. The British losses, except tank losses of 68, were much less, further adding to the numerical inferiority of Panzer Army Afrika. The Desert Air Force inflicted the highest proportions of damage to Rommel’s forces. He now realized the war in Africa was unwinnable without more air support which was impossible since theLuftwaffe was already stretched to breaking point on other fronts.

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