Afrikakorps and the Desert War (1941-1943)

Afrikakorps and the Desert War (1941-1943)

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TheAfrikakorps was a detachment of the Wehrmacht in North Africa, commanded by Erwin Rommel from February 1941 to May 1943 during World War II. Composed of 45,000 men and 250 tanks, the Afrika Korps achieved immediate fame thanks to the remarkable strategic intuition of Erwin Rommel, a German general whose career began in the armored divisions engaged in the campaign in France in 1940.

Italians in distress in North Africa

During the fall and winter of 1940, as Rommel prepared for a greater command, the Italian army suffered serious setbacks in North Africa. After a timid offensive it was quickly pushed back to Libya by General O’Connor's troops. Mussolini, who until then had thought he could wage a war parallel to that of Germany against the United Kingdom, had to resolve to ask Berlin for help. On January 9, 41 Hitler ended up responding to this request and accepted the dispatch of a highly mechanized German corps to North Africa.

Against the recommendations of the General Staff which suggests giving the command to Von Manstein, the führer orders to put him under the orders of Rommel. In his eyes he is the only one who can turn a critical situation around and inspire his troops with enough energy to fight in the desert. On February 9 he informed Rommel, who later recounted that Hitler had chosen to appoint his unit "Afrikakorps "In remembrance of the"Alpenkorps ". Anyway, 3 days later Lieutenant General Rommel landed in Tripoli.

Rommel enters the scene

Officially placed under the orders of the Italian command (Commando Supremo), Rommel shows little regard for his colleagues. Despite the weakness of the means entrusted to him (the 5th Light Division soon transformed into an armored division and the 15th Armored Division) the German general intends not only to save Tripolitania (western Libya), but also to push the British back to in Egypt.

Deliberately distancing himself from his superior the general Gariboldi, he made his still small troops (a few battalions) carry out operations intended to test the resistance of the opposing units. These last amputated of their best elements sent to Greece seem fragile. On the other hand, the British, bearing the brunt of German disinformation maneuvers (and of which Rommel has become master) do not wait for an enemy offensive for many months.

Result when on March 24 the 5th Light Division went on the offensive in the sector ofEl Agheila, the opposing troops began a panicked withdrawal. Rommel exceeded not only Gariboldi's orders, but Hitler's as well. While the Fürher all in the preparations for the war against the USSR only intends to wage a defensive battle in North Africa, Rommel is already seeing himself in Egypt. And it must be said that it is approaching very quickly.

First success of Afrika Korps

The Cyrenaica campaign is a true triumph for the Afrikakorps. Launching raids of rare daring, Rommel's troops disrupt the enemy resistance, capturing several generals (including O’Connor). In mid-April, the Axis troops besieged Tobruk the only port with real logistical capacity in the region.

The siege of Tobruk, with a garrison of up to 40,000 well-equipped men, is a real headache for Rommel who has to contend with the weakness of his supplies. However, reinforced by a new German division (the 90th African Light Division) the Afrikakorps and Italian troops, maintain the siege while repelling several British offensives from Egypt. The fights of the passHalfaya will even be a real disaster for the Allied tanks, often annihilated during traps, by the batteries of German 88mm guns. Rommel’s adaptability, initiative and cunning earned him the nickname "Desert Fox". A nickname soon known throughout Germany thanks to Goebbels propaganda ...

Nevertheless, despite the combativeness of the German-Italian troops, the “Desert Fox” had to concede at the end of 1941 that the material superiority of the new 8th British Army (which will commit more than 700 tanks to Operation "Crusader ") exposes his troops to probable encirclement. On December 9 the German-Italian units withdrew and lifted the siege of Tobruk on the 16th, at Christmas the VIIIth Army entered Benghazi. Rommel will have saved his army and destroyed more than 800 enemy tanks, yet he is back on his starting lines.

Back to square one

Rommel is no less confident. 1942 will be the year of his triumph. In addition to his overwhelming optimism, this confidence can be explained by the situation of the British troops. These are now far from their logistics bases and the weakness of their supplies no longer allows them to express their full potential. Rommel, who had to face the same situation in the fall of 41, intends to take advantage of it.

So on January 21, 1942, he returned to the offensive and in a few days annihilated the 1time British Armored Division. On the 29th the Afrikakorps once again enters Benghazi. The German-Italian troops and their commander are at the top of their game, facing Anglo-Saxon units in disarray. It is a dark time for the British Empire threatened from all sides, whether in North Africa, the Atlantic and Asia against the Japanese.

Rommel promoted colonel-general by a Hitler who publicly confesses his admiration for him (it must be said that the Reich is in great need of victorious heroes after the catastrophic winter of 1941-42) completely exceeds the reluctance of the German and Italian General Staff. Ignoring growing logistical difficulties (reinforced by RAF and Royal Navy action against Axis convoys) he once again plans to invade Egypt. After the reconquest of Cyrenaica in February 1942 he organized the offensive which was to take him to the Suez Canal.

At 8:30 p.m. on May 26, 1942, it was launched. Rommel has 10,000 vehicles, the XXth Italian Motorized Corps (the elite of the Italian army with 225 tanks), the Afrikakorps (340 tanks) and two Italian infantry corps (XXI and Xth), all grouped together in one "African Armored Army » (Panzerarmee Afrika). In front of him the British general Ritchie is convinced that the bulk of the enemy effort will be directed to the coastal road towards Tobruk. In reality, Rommel is satisfied with only a demonstration in this sector and engages the best of his forces in the south, where the Allied device is weakest. These are two divisions and three brigades (including the 1st FFL Brigade of General Koenig) which will receive the full armored shock.

Rommel's plan is a success. Despite the resistance of allied units (as in Bir Hakeim), the Axis troops well supported by the Luftwaffe are moving quickly. On June 21, the Afrikakorps captured Tobruk capturing a huge amount of booty, the next day Rommel was promoted to Marshal.

He is then at the height of his glory. Photographers and cameramen of the Reich immortalize the triumphant armored officer, always close to the action and sharing the harsh daily life of his men. The German press and radio are dithyrambic, Goebbels believes the marshal is: "become in the minds of our people the personification of the successful German soldier ". He also notices that Rommel “understands the role of propaganda better than any other general. He is a modern general in the strict sense of the word. »

From El Alamein to Kasserine

At 50, the youngest marshal in the German army looks to the future with unwavering optimism. The capture of Tobruk allows him, he believes, to have the logistical base necessary to invade Egypt. Convinced of having routed the enemy, on his own initiative he issued new directives to relaunch his offensive.

What he does not know is that the VIIIth Army, far from being on its knees, has reconstituted itself and is very well informed about its new plans (German radio messages are deciphered by Allied intelligence). The general Auchinleck intends to draw Rommel into a battle of position he knows he can win. The British had larger reserves and were fighting near their bases. The Axis troops have seen their offensive potential melt away and can no longer enjoy the "umbrella" offered by the Luftwaffe which lacks bases in the region.

Auchinleck decided to stop Rommel's advance in the region of ’El Alamein. Located about a hundred kilometers from Alexandria, this position (originally an insignificant train station) has the advantage of not being able to be overrun by the enemy. To the north it is bordered by the sea, to the south by the depression of Kattara made up of dry and completely impassable salt marshes.

The 1time Battle of El Alamein will last most of July. Faced with the German-Italian units often exhausted by their long course in the desert, the Allied troops offered fierce resistance. However, the counter-offensive led by Auchinleck on July 21 failed. Once again the "Desert Fox" saved a desperate situation ...

At the beginning of August the marshal is still optimistic. He thinks he has enough time before the next offensive of the VIIIth Army to reinforce his troops and defeat the British. Even if he then received substantial reinforcements (including elite parachute units) he was seriously delusional. Victim of hypertension and overwork, his declining health no longer allows him to have the lucidity necessary to properly judge the situation.

He will have to face a new opponent, the general Montgomery. The latter as obsessed with Rommel as Churchill intends to defeat the "Desert Fox" whatever the cost. In many ways he resembles the German Marshal. Lonely, bossy and arrogant, he is gifted with a great sense of communication and public relations. He also enjoys the confidence of the British Prime Minister.

To defeat Rommel, Montgomery, who certainly does not have his tactical qualities but who is an obstinate planner, will have considerable resources. On August 30, when the Axis troops re-assaulted, the Eighth Army could already oppose them with 767 tanks and a substantial amount of artillery. The result is predictable, the Afrikakorps, which lost two generals on day one, crashed into the lines of Montgomrey, well informed about Rommel's plans. On September 4, the “Desert Fox” returned to his headquarters, defeated.

The German-Italian troops can only wait for the inexorable British counteroffensive. Rommel sick gives his command to the general Stumme September 19. Back in Germany, the disappointed marshal does not hesitate to attribute the causes of his failure to the Italians he has always despised.

Goebbels uses it as a propaganda tool at big-show press conferences. Returning to the heart of the Third Reich's power, Erwin Rommel already sees himself as the future leader of the army. The rout of his old army in North Africa will bring him back to reality.

On October 24, 1942 Hitler personally asked a still recovering Rommel to take over the leadership of the African Armored Army. The latter lost its leader (Stumme died in an ambush) and many men in the offensive launched by Montgomery. The marshal, despite all his genius, has little to oppose him. Allied superiority is two to one in terms of tanks, three to one in terms of airplanes. Faced with the British steamroller, the Axis troops can only retreat.

The end of the Afrikakorps

On November 4, with only 32 tanks left for the Germans, Rommel decided to retreat. If the strongly motorized German divisions can still evade the encirclements attempted by the overly cautious Montgomery, this is not the case for the poorly equipped Italian troops. the German general does not hesitate to sacrifice the best Italian units (such as the paratroopers of the "Folgore”) To slow down the allies. It must be said that time is running out. Axis forces must withdraw to Tunisia, while the British and Americans land in Morocco and Algeria (Operation Torch, November 8, 1942).

During a long retreat in which he still showed great qualities, Rommel managed to save most of his troops. On January 22, 1943 the latter retreated to the Mareth line (pre-war fortifications built by the French), in southern Tunisia. Although ill and in need of replacement, he clings to his command convinced he can still defend the Axis positions. He has decided to target American units that he considers to be of poor quality.

He thus manages to inflict several defeats on them as well as Kasserine and take the initiative again. His new successes even earned him the appointment as head of all Axis troops fighting in North Africa. Flattered, however, he knows that victory is no longer possible. The situation is totally unbalanced in favor of the Allies. The balance of power is 1 to 7 for armored vehicles, 1 to 20 for tanks and 1 to 3 for artillery. The few successes that his troops can still achieve will not change anything.

Believing that his armies can no longer afford to hold most of Tunisian territory, he recommends that Hitler retreat to a defensive perimeter around Tunis. The Führer then believes that the Marshal is no longer good but to retreat and suspects him of defeatism. He categorically rejects his plan, asking Rommel to return to the offensive. It is too much for the marshal, who is seriously ill, cedes his command to the general Von Arnim. The "Desert Fox" left North Africa on March 9, never to return.

His troops will hold out for another two long months until May 13. With their surrender the allies will take nearly 300,000 prisoners, dealing a fatal blow to the Italian army and opening the southern flank of the Axis to an invasion. A disaster equivalent to Stalingrad ... The failure of the Afrikakorps thus manifests Hitler's strategic blindness and places the Axis in an irremediable situation of encirclement.


  • Afrikakorps, 1941-1943: The Campaign of Libya-Egypt, by François de Lannoy. Heimdal, 2002.

Video: Erwin Rommel and his German AfrikaKorps 1941 Combat footage