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Erwin Rommel And World War II
Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox".
Erwin Rommel with Major General V M Fortune
German And French Lines of Action, Western Europe,1939.
Rommel's "Blitzkrieg" Warfare In Europe
World War II started in 1939. During the German invasion of Poland, Erwin Rommel was in the command of escort forces who guarded their fuhrer Hitler. However, Rommel wanted to be in the line of action in the war fronts. He requested Hitler to give him the command of the 7th Panzer Division. His wish was granted. In the invasion of France, Rommel's 7th Panzer Division came to be known as the "Ghost Division". In the invasion of Belgium, Rommel's Panzer Division was required to defend the flanks but Rommel often went away from his mission and chased the enemy by taking advantage of the field positions.
This is one example of Rommel's genius : Blitzkrieg warfare!
"The 7th Panzer Division of Rommel had reached the River Meuse by 14th of May. There, the attack into France stalled due to destroyed bridges and constant artillery fire from the Belgian defenders. Rommel took command of the forces at the river, bringing up tanks to counter-fire on the enemy. Rommel did not have any smoke units on that day and he improvised by burning houses, so as to conceal his forces with the smoke. Rommel sent soldiers across in rubber boats and went into the water himself, encouraging and helping his men. Once the bridge was functional, he crossed the river in the second tank. Such fearless Rommel was! With the Meuse river crossed, the division moved into France and the genius tactician Rommel moved back and forth among his forces, directing and pressing forward their advance."
His rapid attacks led him to astounding wins in Europe and the allied forces were completely defeated. A major reason of his success was that he could psychologically shock his enemy by the pace and surprise of his attacks. Further, he was constantly motivating his men by being active on the front of the battle and with his blitzkrieg attacks, he demoralized the spirit of the enemy forces.
Rommel And His Art Of War
Rommel In Africa
Rommel Rises In The Army
The success of Rommel's 7th Panzer Division in Europe got him promoted. He was given the command of the newly created Deutsches Africa Korps, which was to help the demoralized Italian divisions in Africa. Rommel was ordered by the high command to be defensive and launch a limited attack on the enemy towards Benghazi. Rommel did not approve of this plan as he understood that the terrain at Benghazi was not defensible.
The British fell back to Mersa el Brega and started to construct defensive bases, being sure that the German high command had ordered Rommel to be defensive. However, Rommel continued his attack against the British so that they could not build fortifications. After some fierce fighting, the Germans destroyed the British and their advance continued. It was clear to everyone that Rommel had disregarded all orders from his superiors. In early April, 1941, the British Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command, General Archibald Wavell, ordered the abandonment of Benghazi acknowledging defeat from Rommel's fierce fighting.
Rommel prepares his offensive at Tobruk
Rommel at the port of Tobruk
At the Operation Crusader
At Sidi Rezegh
Erwin Rommel, west of Tobruk
Map Showing Battle of Gazala
Rommel VS Montgomery
Soldiers taking cover in the Battle of El Alamein
Second Battle of El Alamein
The Desert Battles In Africa
SIEGE OF THE PORT "TOBRUK" - It was essential for the Germans to win the port of Tobruk if they had to win the battle in the desert and Rommel understood it better than anyone else. Rommel started small offensives against the 25000 defenders at the port but they were beaten back by the defenders under the command of Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. Rommel requested reinforcements but was denied by the German High Command, which was preparing for Operation Barbarossa (German invasion of Russia). Rommel then strengthened his defense and waited for an Allied attack. Likewise, on 15 June, 1941, British General Wavell launched a major offensive against the Germans which was codenamed "Battleaxe". Rommel defeated the British in a fierce four-day battle. Due to this major victory, Rommel was rewarded by the high command and was appointed the commander of the newly created Panzer Group Africa. Next mission of Rommel was to capture Tobruk.
OPERATION CRUSADER- It was the first major Allied Offensive in the Desert under the leadership of Alan Cunningham, commander of the British Eighth Army. Auchinleck, having 770 tanks and about 1000 aircraft to his aid, launched a major offensive to relieve Tobruk. Rommel opposed him with two numerically inferior armoured divisions. A position was reached where Rommel could either keep stroming Tobruk or face the southern British thrust. The British expected Rommel to attack eastward which would have allowed the British to surround them with a southern attack. The brilliant Rommel however attacked the southern British force at Sidi Rezegh. The Panzer Divisions captured and held their defensive positions at Sidi Rezegh. The joint German and Italian Divisions attacked and enveloped the British forces. Though the British managed to escape to Gabr Saleh, they lost most of their forces.
Next, Rommel took a risk. He counterattacked into the British rear areas in Egypt with only a 100 tanks and wanted to cut their supply lines by using the enemy's confusion to his advantage. He expected British General Cunningham to withdraw to Egypt, but Auchinleck came from Cairo and cancelled the Withdrawl just in time. Due to Auchinleck's timely intervention, Rommel lost a lot of men and had to go back to a defensive position. He moved to Gazala, west of Tobruk and waited for reinforcements. The Afrika Korps received 55 new tanks on 5th January 1942 and Rommel started planning a counterattack. On the 21st of January, Rommel launched an attack on the British which caught the allies by surprise. The Allies lost more than 110 tanks.
THE BATTLE OF GAZALA AND THE FALL OF TOBRUK - Rommel used the British minefields as a defensive line to their west and marched towards Gazala. Under determined attacks from the Afrika Korps, the British retreated into Egypt. The Axis forces reached the coast and prevented the escape of the Allied forces. Rommel then struck for Tobruk again as the Allied forces were totally disorganized from their recent defeat at Gazala. Rommel attacked Tobruk with a coordinated force this time and the city fell in a day. The capture of Tobruk along with its 33000 defenders, food, supplies and a small port due south of Crete was a huge achievement. Hitler promoted Erwin Rommel to Field Marshal for this important victory.
THE BATTLES OF EL ALAMEIN- After capturing Tobruk, Rommel chased the British into Egypt. Though he did not have enough force and amongst all the opposite views in his high command, he decided to move forward towards Egypt and then Malta. The British had created its defense in the city of El Alamein, 150 miles west of Cairo. El Alamein was the last line of defense for the Allies. Losing this defense would leave the Suez Canal to the Germans and would be decisive to the war! Rommel had to attack quickly as his resources (food, fuel) were limited and went to strike El Alamein. The Allies had placed a huge number of land mines south of El Alamein at Alam Halfa. Most of the German Panzers were lost due to the mines and the British and American Bomber Planes and he had to retreat.
The Germans had 1,10,000 men and 500 tanks. A number of these tanks were poor Italian tanks and could not match the new Allied Sherman tanks. The Allied forces were double in number. "Operation Bertman" was launched by Allied General Montgomery which aimed at making Rommel believe that the Allied offensive will be in the south and it worked for a brief time. Then, Montgomery directed an offensive on Rommel called "Operation Lightfoot". This operation failed as Rommel and his men fought ferociously. Rommel understood Montgomery's plan and moved his forces north to the Mediterranean and expected an Allied attack there. Rommel and his Afrika Korps faced a huge Australian force near the Mediterranean. Though facing large casualties, the Australians resisted Rommel's men just about time when the Afrika Korps faced a surprised attack from the South by British and New Zealand infantry and tanks. Rommel was badly outnumbered and he knew that he had lost. Hitler had ordered Rommel to fight till the last German soldier was alive, but he refused to carry out that order. The Germans left North Africa by May 1943. Despite his refusal to obey Hitler’s direct command, Rommel did not lose his fuhrer's trust.
Rommel inspecting French coastal defense in 1944
Defending The Allied Invasion
Rommel was disappointed with the German preparations in defending the expected Allied invasion of France. He took full responsibility for fortifying the French coastline. The beaches at Normandy and other possible locations were set up with anti-tank traps which were invisible at full-tide. The barbed fences, the strategic German posts near the coast were all planned by Rommel. There was total disorganization in the defensive measure as Hitler distributed the responsibilities among many Generals who had different opinions. Though his defensive measures were of little problem to the large Allied attack, he was partly successful in hindering the invasion.
Poster of Rommel in Libya
An Allied Sherman Tank
German Fighter Planes
Why Did Erwin Rommel Lose In Africa?
Rommel was a brilliant tactician and a great leader. The nickname ‘Desert Fox’ was well deserved by Rommel as he was highly respected even by the British. He managed to surprise his enemy by his rapid unexpected attacks. He would have won his Africa campaign if he was supported properly by the German High Command. Chiefly, these are the reasons for which his Afrika Korps lost in the battle of El Alamein and the Africa campaign -
1. Throughout the Africa campaign, Rommel had shortage of resources such as food, fuel and numerical inferiority compared to the Allies. Because he was a supreme commander, Rommel could fight the Allies till Egypt and had nearly won the battle at El Alamein.
2. Most of the German High Command and Hitler himself did not understand the importance of winning in Africa. Hitler did not understand global warfare. It was historical blunder of Hitler to invade Russia as well as fight the Allies in Africa!
3. The British had the Suez Canal to their aid. Thus, they could quickly reinforce and bring in supplies than their Axis counterparts who had to bring in men and resources from the Cape of Good Hope and throughout the desert. This proved deadly to Rommel and his Afrika Korps.
4. The Lufftwaffe (German Air Force) was very effective initially in the War. Later, it lost to the British Royal Air Force. Thus, the Allies (British plus American plus Soviet fighter planes) largely won the aerial warfare.
5. Rommel had to fight the Allies in the desert along with Italian forces who had poor artillery and tanks. The Italian commanders often disregarded Rommel and waited for commands from their Italian High Command.