In February 1941, Erwin Rommel arrived in Libya to save an Italian army in disarray. But instead of following orders to defend his position, Rommel attacked. Leading from the front, he pushed the understrength British and Commonwealth forces back to the Egyptian border. He had them on the run, but to advance any further Rommel needed more supplies and that meant capturing the port of Tobruk. The fate of the entire campaign rested on the town. But despite multiple attacks, the British and Commonwealth garrison held firm and Rommel’s offensive was over. His surprise victory earned him the nickname The Desert Fox.

In this episode of IWM Stories, John Delaney explores Rommel's first campaign in the desert. How did he pull off such a stunning reversal? How did the British stop him at Tobruk? And is Rommel’s reputation deserved?

How the British stopped Rommel at Tobruk

In February 1941, Erwin Rommel arrived in Libya to save an Italian army in disarray. But instead of following orders to defend his position, Rommel attacked. Leading from the front, he pushed the understrength British and Commonwealth forces back to the Egyptian border. He had them on the run, but to advance any further Rommel needed more supplies and that meant capturing the port of Tobruk. The fate of the entire campaign rested on the town. But despite multiple attacks, the British and Commonwealth garrison held firm and Rommel’s offensive was over.  

Rommel's first offensive in North Africa earned him the nickname The Desert Fox – But how did he pull it off? How did the British stop him? And was Rommel’s reputation deserved? To find out, we first need to understand why Rommel was in Africa in the first place. 

In September 1940 Italy had invaded British Egypt in an attempt to build a new Roman Empire, but following a counterattack codenamed Operation Compass, they were forced back. Over the course of 10 weeks the Allied forces under Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, who numbered less than 40,000 men, captured 130,000 Italian prisoners. The stunning victory took the British into the heart of Libya, but for German leader Adolf Hitler, that was very worrying. 

It seems as if all the Italian positions in North Africa are going to collapse and the Mediterranean will, in effect, become controlled by the British which is precisely what Hitler doesn't want. Erwin Rommel basically gets sent to North Africa to save the Italian's bacon. Block the advance of British forces,  keep the Italians in the war and keep the Mediterranean contested. 

On February 12th, 1941, Erwin Rommel arrived in North Africa as the commander of the new Deutsches Afrika Korps. He was an officer with a reputation. During the First World War he won the Pour le Mérite for his leadership during the Battle of Caporetto, while in 1940 he had been at the vanguard of the German drive through the Ardennes into France. 

There are lots of stories of him literally being at the front, including when they were crossing the river Meuse under fire from the French. He actually went across in one of the first assault boats himself. He became sort of a poster boy for the German army and Goebbels had given him a camera personally for him to record his own experiences to the campaign. And a lot of the photography he took found its way back and was used for propaganda purposes. This began this sort of myth of Rommel the warrior general, which reached its peak in North Africa. 

The Afrika Korps was made up of two German units, the 5th Light Division and 15th Panzer Division which had roughly the same number of tanks. It also contained three of the more mobile Italian units the Brescia, Pavia and Ariete divisions. Rommel’s forces were then subordinated under the Italian theatre commander Italo Garibaldi, who controlled the other Italian units. However, due to shipping problems, the German units were expected to arrive in dribs and drabs over the next two months, with Rommel ordered to block any British advances. 

I think we have to remember at this point that the British are effectively reading, through Bletchley Park and Enigma, all of the German High Command's signals, and this all indicates that it's going to take time for a build-up and that Rommel has been sent there specifically as a blocking force. He's not there to attack the British, he's there to save the Italians. So they feel safe to run down the British forces, especially those who were desert veterans, and send them to Greece. 

Archive footage: Britain is following up her aid to Greece program by sending to that gallant country large reinforcements in men and materials.

The very best of the British and Commonwealth forces which had smashed the Italians during Operation Compass were sent to bolster the Greek defences.  The forces left in Libya were not up to much. Cyrenaica Command under Lieutenant General Sir Philip Neame consisted of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade who had no anti-tank guns, the inexperienced 9th Australian Division which were still arriving in theatre and the 2nd Armoured Division which was an armoured division in name only. It featured a support group of artillery and only one armoured brigade. 

The three British tank regiments that made up the brigade, one of which was made up purely of like tanks, we just machine guns. One of which was made up of A-9, A-10 and A-13 cruiser tanks, which were notoriously unreliable, and they'd left the unreliable ones behind the best ones they'd taken to Greece. And the third British tank regiment was completely equipped with captured Italian tanks that they'd captured a couple of months before. You can see there that the British are incredibly unprepared for what's going to happen next.  

The opening moves of the campaign came on the 24th of March. At this point, only half of Rommel’s Panzers had actually arrived in Libya, but nevertheless, he attacked. Using 8 wheeled armoured cars he forced the British and Commonwealth forces at El Agheila back to Mersa Brega. 

But Rommel couldn’t let them dig in at what had the potential to be a major choke point. The coast road, or Via Balbia, through Mersa Brega was the only tarmac road in all of Libya. He had to strike quickly and so sent his forces forward on the 30th of March. The British 2nd Armoured Support Group held firm at Mersa Brega all morning, but their request for armoured support was denied. By the afternoon they were almost surrounded and had to fall back towards Ajdabiya. 

Having cleared the choke point, the British left flank was now open. Despite his direct orders not to go beyond Mersa Brega, Rommel could not resist attacking towards Ajdabiya the following day. 

Garibaldi reluctantly agrees to what he thinks is a limited thrust. But as soon as, of course, Rommel reaches that position, he just carries on and decides to exploit the situation. And he's on the end of a missive from Garibaldi saying, What the hell do you think you're doing? But at almost exactly the same time a telegram arrives from Adolf Hitler saying, "Well done, keep going" and that Mussolini approves. So Garibaldi doesn't really have a leg to stand on. And from that point onwards, really relinquishes command field operations to Rommel. And that's only two days in.  

As the Axis chain of command simplified, the British chain of command got more and more complicated. General Sir Archibald Wavell, the theatre commander in the Middle Eastern, knew that Neame was inexperienced. He interfered throughout the campaign and brought O’Connor, his desert specialist from Operation Compass, back in to advise Neame which further clouded British decision making.  

Neame had orders to preserve his forces and elected to continue falling back. But the British retreat quickly got out of hand, which Rommel chose to exploit using the Blitzkrieg tactics for which the German army had become famous.  

The principles underlying blitzkrieg are really two principles. One is, you avoid head-on conflict if you can. You go round the enemy. You don't go into a head-on attack against the defensive position. The other thing is the German concept of Auftragstaktik which basically mean you can make things up as you go along. It devolves a lot of initiative down to junior commanders. Their ability to mix and match and be flexible always catches the British and Allies by surprise, keeps them on the back foot. The other element we've got here is the Germans had extraordinarily effective radio interception. And could tell where these units were and where they were moving back to, which enabled them to do things like cut coast roads and sweep around the flanks of units because they knew where they were in the vast open expanse of the desert.  

Rommel split his forces into three main columns. One was sent down the Via Balbia, towards Benghazi.  While the other two set off across the base of Cyrenaica to cut the British off around Derna and Tobruk. The units within those columns constantly changed based on the requirements of the situation which kept the British on the back foot, guessing what would happen next. 

On April 4th, German troops entered Benghazi, with British and Commonwealth forces now in complete disarray. The constant retreats were taking their toll on the already unreliable British tanks and the roads were littered with broken-down machines. 

But as the British raced back towards their new defensive line at Derna and Mechilli, Rommel was beginning to have problems of his own. The further he advanced, the more stretched his supply chain became as Axis material had to be driven from Tripoli all the way to the frontline. He would have to take another port soon, if he wanted to continue his advance.  

He needs 1,500 tons of supplies a day to keep his army in the field. And the most he ever gets in this period is 1,000 tons a day. He has to stop the advance at least twice across on an Cyrenaica because literally they run out of fuel. And in one instance he comes across an Italian group and he finds they stopped. They can't attack Mechilli because they've run out of fuel. So he, by himself and one of his officers in a lorry, goes back, finds 35 cans of fuel, comes back to the front line, equips the Italians with 35 cans of fuel, and then they can launch their attack.

At Mechilli, British and Commonwealth forces are finally able to make a defensive stand. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade delayed the Germans for two vital days before being captured, allowing what remained of the 2nd Armoured and 9th Australian Divisions to escape towards Tobruk. 

But along with the good news came bad, as Generals Neame and O’Connor were captured along with another senior British officer trying to escape. It was yet another blow to British leadership which took days to recover. In contrast, Rommel was spurring his exhausted troops to continue the advance. 

Rommel is a firm believer in leading right from the front. And he has a Fiesler Storc light aircraft, which he pilots regularly and flies up and down the front line, but of course puts him in extreme danger. But he feels that the risk is worthwhile and because of that he's literally able to land next to a unit and say, get a move on. And he does that on several occasions. Conversely, if you're doing that, you're not looking after the bigger things. He wasn't really very well liked by the officers because he kept flying off, leaving them to it. But on the other hand, his willingness to put himself in harm's way to lead the troops, that generated respect among the troops on the ground. 

On April 9th, German forces surrounded the town of Tobruk on three sides with Australian 9th division inside. By this time, the 15th Panzer division was beginning to arrive in North Africa and Rommel had the Suez Canal in his sights. Later, advanced units reached Sollum on the Egyptian Border, but were stopped there by supply problems. If Rommel wanted to go any further, he had to take Tobruk. 

The Italians, for the previous five or so years, they'd been digging emplacements, fortifications, and they had themselves turned Tobruk into a fortress. Additionally, the coast road, the Via Blabia, which runs all along the coast runs straight through Tobruk and straight through the defences. There is therefore no tarmac road that Rommel can use without taking Tobruk. From a fluid desert battle where one side is constantly outmanoeuvring the other side. Rommel runs up against this nut that he's got to crack to carry on.  

By this point, Rommel was very much used to the British and Commonwealth troops retreating, and he was confident that at Tobruk he could bounce them out once again. However, that confidence was misplaced and led to poor planning in his attacks. 

On April 10th, the commander of the incoming 15th Panzer Division was killed while carrying out reconnaissance by British gunners who had had time to sight their weapons. He had been in North Africa for only two days. 

Following more failed probing attacks, the first assault began on the night of April 13th. After fierce fighting, the Australian defenders let the German tanks run over their entrenched positions into the perimeter, but continued to hold the German infantry following up behind. Without support, the German tanks were then engaged on three sides by British guns and tanks. After suffering heavy losses, they were forced to retreat. The disaster of the first attack severly affected Rommel's reputation with his men. 

Regardless of his, you know, front line bravery, he also had a reputation with the troops in the front line of being a risk taker and risking his men's lives. He actually gives up using German troops after the second day because they're taking too many casualties. He can't keep affording to throw his Germans against the defensive positions like this. So he uses Italian troops for the last two attacks. 

This time he planed properly and used far more men, but it was still not enough. On April 16th Rommel was forced to watch as men of the Trento division were counterattacked by Australian troops and surrendered to them in large numbers. The next day Italian tanks of the Ariete continued the attack, but got separated from their infantry and were once again forced to withdraw. Over the next few days, the Australians came out in a series of aggressive patrols which captured yet more Italian troops. 

Archive footage: In the first 8 days of the siege they captured 33 German tanks, took 1,500 prisoners, and knocked 24 German aeroplanes out of the sky.

Unable to capture Tobruk, Rommel’s offensive was over. All the advantages that Rommel previously enjoyed came to a sudden stop at Tobruk. His Blitzkrieg manoeuvre warfare was up against a strong defensive position which he could not go around. And as his logistical situation deteriorated, the British inside Tobruk were being resupplied every day. The result left Rommel at a standstill, but his stunning victory in the desert secured his legacy as one of the great generals of the Second World War - The Desert Fox.

I think you can say that Rommel was an extraordinarily brave soldier, always demonstrating to those under his command 'if he can do it, you can do it'. Where the myth disintegrates somewhat is in his overblown sense of self-confidence, bordering on the reckless. You might say it's somewhat surprising that he gets this mythologized status. But it really suits everybody doesn't it? It suits the British that they've been beaten by a genius. It suits Rommel to call himself a genius. It suits Goebbels and Hitler because they chose the genius. The only people it doesn't really suit are the Italians. But overall, all those factors come together to make the Rommel myth. 

Over the next few weeks the front stabilised and both sides, exhausted from the fighting, were able to lick their wounds. German aircraft pummelled the British and Commonwealth garrison which quickly became known as the 'Rats of Tobruk'. In May, British forces would receive over 200 tanks from the convoy Operation Tiger and British relief efforts would soon be underway. But more about that in another video.

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