World War Two: North Africa (Part 1-1); Setting the Stage; The Axis 1940-42

American soldiers began striding through the surf to the beaches of Northwest Africa before dawn on 8 November 1942. They were the first of more than one million Americans to see service in the Mediterranean area during World War II-men of the II Army Corps in Tunisia, the Seventh Army in Sicily, the Fifth Army in Italy from Salerno to the Alps, and an elaborate theater organization.[N-1] The stream of American military strength which was to pour into that part of the world during the next two and one half years would include the Twelfth, Ninth, and Fifteenth Air Forces; the U.S. Naval Forces, Northwest African Waters; the Eighth Fleet; and a considerable American contribution to Allied Force Headquarters.

[N-1: At the time of the attack, French North Africa was within the boundaries of the European Theater of Operations, U.S. Army. On 4 February 1943, a separate North African Theater of Operations, U.S. Army was established. On 1 November 1944, this area (with modified boundaries) was renamed the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, U.S. Army.]

These first Americans to arrive in Northwest Africa were part of an Allied expeditionary force which linked ground, sea, and air units from both the United States and the British Commonwealth. They were participants in the first large-scale offensive in which the Allies engaged as partners in a common enterprise, an operation which transformed the Mediterranean from a British to an Allied theater of war. Occupying French North Africa was actually to be the first of a considerable series of undertakings adopted, planned, mounted, and executed under the authority of the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff. [N-2] Succeeding operations in the Mediterranean area proved far more extensive than intended. One undertaking was to lead to the next, each based upon reasons deemed compelling at the time, until at the end of hostilities Allied forces dominated the Mediterranean Sea and controlled most of its coastal region.

[N-2: The Combined Chiefs of Staff was an agency created in response to decisions reached at the ARCADIA Conference of American and British leaders in Washington in January 1942. The agency’s headquarters was in Washington, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with the British Joint Staff Mission (representatives of the British Chiefs of Staff Committee), but a large number of its sessions took place at special conferences attended by the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The Combined Chiefs of Staff acquired a structure of subordinate planners and a secretariat.]

After liberating French North Africa and clearing the enemy from the Italian colonies, the Allies sought to bring the entire French empire effectively into the war against the Axis powers. They reopened the Mediterranean route to the Middle East. They went on from Africa to liberate Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. They caused Mussolini to topple from power, and they brought his successors to abject surrender.

They drew more and more German military resources into a stubborn defense of the Italian peninsula, and helped the Yugoslavs to pin down within their spirited country thousands of Axis troops. Eventually, the Allies delivered a solid blow from southern France against the German forces which were opposing the Allied drive from the beaches of Normandy! They made Marseilles available for Allied use and they occupied northern Italy and Greece. In Italy they forced the first unconditional surrender by a large German force in Europe. The events following the invasion of French North Africa thus made of the Mediterranean a major theater in World War II’s titanic struggle. The momentous first step though not timorous, was hesitant, and somewhat reluctant; like the first step of a child it was more a response to an urge for action than a decision to reach some specific destination. The responsibility for this beginning rested more with the civilian than with the professional military leaders of the two countries. Whether the decision was wise or not, the critical factors affecting success, like those inviting the attempt, were largely political rather than military.

Axis involvement in the Mediterranean theater of war likewise mounted from small beginnings and after periodic inventories of the general military situation. Since the German Führer, Adolf Hitler, had precipitated the war much earlier than the Duce Benito Mussolini, had agreed to be ready; Italy remained a nonbelligerent until June 1940, and participated then very briefly in the attacks which led to French surrender.

The Mediterranean escaped major hostilities during this period of Italian preparations. Italian forces were assembled in eastern Cyrenaica for an eventual attack on Egypt in conjunction with an attack from the south to be launched from Ethiopia, while British forces were gathered to defend Egypt. But actual conflict was deferred.

After France’s capitulation in June 1940, and after the British Government refused to make peace by negotiation, Hitler reluctantly concluded that the war must be carried to British soil. His project for invading the United Kingdom was frustrated at an early stage by the failure of Reichsmarschall Hermann Gӧring’s Luftwaffe to eliminate the Royal Air Force and by the irreconcilable discrepancies between what the German Army required and what the German Navy could furnish for transport and escort shipping. He repeatedly postponed a decision to attack across the English Channel and eventually abandoned the idea. If he could not strike his enemy at home, he proposed instead to inflict a vital injury by seizing Gibraltar in co-operation with Spain and Italy and by supporting the Italians in their drive toward Egypt and the Suez Canal. He tried, mainly in this connection, to construct an anti-British alliance of Germany, Italy, France, and Spain, thus gaining for the Axis the French fleet along with French and Spanish strategic areas. His efforts failed.

Marshal Henri Petain engaged in an endless, elastic contest with the Nazis to hold fast to all things that were French. His government, ever under threat of military occupation of all of France at the Führer’s signal, served Hitler’s purpose by preventing the creation in the French colonies of an independent anti-Nazi French government.

Whatever concessions beyond the armistice agreements Petain might make at Nazi insistence and in return for the release of German held French prisoners, for example, the old Marshal would never commit French forces to fight beside the Germans. The French Navy, bitter as it was toward the British, would have scuttled its warships before allowing them to be used to advance Hitler’s aspirations. France, therefore, was not available for an alliance against the British and was left in control of its Northwest African colonies under pledge to defend them against attack from whatever side.

Francisco Franco set such an exorbitant territorial price upon a partnership with Germany as to make impossible an alliance which included Spain and France, and he engaged in such elaborate and effective procrastination as to render any genuine military contribution to the seizure of Gibraltar a matter for Nazi despair. When Hitler went to meet the Caudillo at Hendaye, France, on 29 October 1940, the Spanish dictator subjected him to the unusual experience of being a listener for hours. Rather than undergo such pain again, Hitler told Mussolini he would prefer to have several teeth pulled.

The fact that a new alliance of the four governments could not be attained became evident at a time when even the existing arrangement between Germany and Italy was somewhat strained. Although the two dictators had a friendly personal relationship, the Italians intended to wage a separate and parallel war in the Mediterranean. Hitler had always accepted the principle that the Mediterranean was an area of paramount Italian interest just as, farther north, German interests were exclusive.

He received in the autumn of 1940 clear indication that the Italians wished to proceed independently. Initially the Italians refused a German offer of an armored unit for use in the planned Italian campaign from Libya against Egypt. It was only after the campaign, begun on 12 September under the command of Maresciallo d’Italia Rudolfo Graziani, had bogged down that the Italians reluctantly accepted the German offer. On 28 October, moreover, although knowing Hitler’s opposition, and therefore dissembling their intentions, the Italians attacked Greece from Albania.

Hitler’s disgust at the opening of this new front in the Balkans by the Italians led him to withdraw temporarily his offer of German armored support for the Italian forces in Libya. This decision was confirmed during the Innsbruck conference of 4 and 5 November between Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht-OKW) and Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio, the Chief of the Supreme General Staff (Stato Maggiore Generale). When both these adventures became engulfed in failure, the Italians on 19 December abandoned their reluctance to accept German reinforcements which Hitler, despite his irritation with Italian behavior, had again offered to supply for reasons of high military policy.

Hitler was already planning a Blitzkrieg against Russia to be executed during the summer of 1941. For that attack his Balkan flank had to be secure. He believed that the free use of the Mediterranean route by the British was equivalent to a large extra tonnage of transport shipping and the release of naval warships for other operations, an advantage to his major enemy which might make a complete Axis victory unattainable. He also wished to prevent the detrimental effect upon Italian morale and the severe loss of prestige for the Axis which would result from the loss of Libya and the related possibility of a separate Italian peace.

One large aviation unit (X. Fliegerkorps) received orders to shift to southern Italy in December 1940 and a small armored force began crossing from Naples to Tripoli in February, There it was to be combined with Italian mobile units under the command of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel in an aggressive rather than a static defense. Rommel was subordinated to the Italian Commander in Chief Libya (Commandante del Comando Superiore Forze Armate Libia), Generale d’Armata Italo Gariboldi, who replaced Graziani in early February 1941. Rommel’s command, the German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrika Korps), shortly reinforced by the addition of an armored division, received general directives from Hitler only after Mussolini had approved them, for the German forces were considered as agents of Italian military policy within the Axis partnership.[N-3]

[N-3: Hitler’s Order, 10 Dec 40, and Dir, 11 Jan 41 OKW/WFSt/Abt L, Nr. 33400/40 and OKW/ WFSt/Abt L, Nr. 44018/41; Orders signed by Keitel, 13 Jan and 3 Apr 41, OKW/WFSt/Abt L, Nr. 00 94/41; Order signed by Col Walter Warlimont, deputy chief of OKW/WFSt, 19 Feb 41, OKW/WFSt/Abt L (I Op), Nr. 44189/41. All in ONI, Führer Directives, 1939–1941.]

The German Africa Corps prepared for its eastward thrust toward Egypt while other German troops extended their hold over the Balkans and prepared to subjugate Greece. Some of the limited British forces in northern Africa were diverted to Greece to aid its defenders, but not enough to prevent the Peloponnesus from being swiftly overrun in April 1941, while almost simultaneously Rommel’s force swept across Libya with surprising speed to the Egyptian border. Only the port of Tobruk remained in British possession in the rear of the Axis units, where it was a continual threat to their long line of supply. The British Eighth Army, which was formed during the next few months of 1941, was not ready for another offensive to the westward before November, but Rommel also was obliged to pause. If these Axis thrusts in the Balkans and northern Africa were, on the one hand, followed by the dramatically successful airborne assault on Crete in May, they were, on the other hand, somewhat offset shortly afterward by the British and Gaullist-French seizure of Syria and by the British military occupation of Iraq. Turkey remained resolutely neutral.21

All Axis operations in 1941 were overshadowed by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June. The requirements and preparations for this colossal effort precluded any extensive German commitments in the Mediterranean. Franco’s delays dragged out negotiations over German seizure of Gibraltar beyond the time when anything could be done about it without detriment to the impending attack against Russia.22 Throughout most of the year; therefore, the principal feature of the war in the Mediterranean was the battle over supply lines. German naval units were drawn into this struggle, like the ground troops, in a role at least nominally subordinate to the Italian Supreme Command.[N-4] 

[N-4: (1) The Italian Supreme General Staff was reorganized in June 1941. Its powers were greatly increased and it became the most important organ of command. Thereafter it was known as the Comando Supremo (Supreme Command). See Howard McGaw Smyth, “The Command of the Italian Armed Forces in World War II,” Military Affairs, XV, No. 1 (Spring, 1951), 38. (2) Hitler’s Order, 29 Oct 41, WFSt/Abt L (I Op), Nr. 441794/41, in ONI, Führer Directives, 1939–1941. (3) Vice-Admiral Eberhard Weichold (German Admiral, Rome), The War at Sea in the Mediterranean. U.S. Navy Press Release 26 Feb 47.]

 

 

German aviation harassed British shipping. German submarines joined Italian naval units in policing the waters of the Sicilian straits. The occupation of Crete, costly as it was, improved the Axis position greatly in the violent effort to strangle the connection between Malta and the eastern Mediterranean. The British island of Malta, between the Sicilian straits and Crete, was a base for aircraft, destroyers, and submarines which severely curtailed the flow of supplies and reinforcements from Italy to Tripoli. The fortunes of Rommel’s command seemed almost directly proportional to Axis success in neutralizing Malta.

If the Soviet Union had succumbed to the gigantic attack which began in June 1941, Hitler would presumably have undertaken in November an elaborate attack upon the Near East and have forced Spain to allow an attack against Gibraltar. Concentric drives by Rommel through Egypt, by a second force from Bulgaria through Turkey, and, if necessary, by a third element from Transcaucasia through Iran were also contemplated.

Success in these operations would have broken the British hold on the Middle East. But when, despite the heightened German need for petroleum from the Middle East for operations in 1942, the attack against the Russians fell short of success, the program scheduled for November was necessarily delayed. The British began a counteroffensive in northern Africa at that point which relieved the garrison cut off in Tobruk and drove Rommel’s forces back on EI Agheila. This advantage was abruptly canceled in January 1942, when Rommel made a second advance to the east which regained much of the lost ground. His command was renamed Panzerarmee Afrika, and received reinforcements and additional equipment to resume the attack against the British Eighth Army. From the EI Gazala Line he was expected to gain Tobruk and the coast directly east of it. [N-5]

[N-5: A panzer group headquarters (Panzergruppe Afrika) was created for Rommel in August 1941 with command over the German Africa Corps, Italian XXX Corps, and some small miscellaneous units. Rommel was promoted to General der Panzertruppen 1 July 1941 and to Generaloberst on 1

February 1942. (1) OKW, Kriegstagebuch (hereafter cited as OKW, KTB), I.IV.-3/’VI.42, Entries

21, 30 Apr, and 1, 7 May 42. Great Britain, Exhibit 227, USC, Rg 238. This document appears to be the only one of those comprising the text of the OKW war diary that was not destroyed. The OKW war diary, prepared by Hitler’s Plenipotentiary for Military History, Oberst Walter Scherff, was to be the basis for a history of the war as seen from the highest German level. (2) Rommel, Krieg ohne Hass, pp. 111-26. (3) MS # T- 3-PI (Kesselring), Pt. I.]]

Rommel’s success and the capture of Malta [The planned operation for Malta was Operation HERKULES] were interdependent, a fact which produced a decision to undertake seizure of the island. Heavy air attacks would be made upon it in April 1942 to cover the shipment to Tripoli, Bengasi, and Derna of the means required for the first phase of Rommel’s offensive. After he had seized Tobruk and pushed to Marsa Matriih, thus holding the area from which Malta might be helped by British land-based airplanes, he was to pause while mixed German and Italian forces, partly airborne and partly seaborne, gained possession of the island.

Supplies to Rommel could thereafter go forward from Italy to the African ports in sufficient volume and his offensive would be resumed. While these plans were maturing, more German forces reached the Mediterranean basin.

The German X. Fliegerkorps was replaced, beginning late in 1941, by the Second Air Force (Luftflotte 2) over which Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring exercised command as Commander in Chief South (Oberbefehlshaber Sued) from a new headquarters at Frascati, near Rome.

Kesselring, subordinated to the Duce, was expected to employ his aviation in conformity with directives issued or approved by Mussolini, and to have a relationship as air commander to the Italian Supreme Command similar to that of Rommel as ground commander to the Italian Commander in Chief in Libya. Kesselring as senior German officer also assisted Generalleutnant Enno von Rintelen, Commanding

General, Headquarters, German General at the Headquarters of the Italian Armed Forces (Deutscher General bei dem Hauptquartier der italienischen WehrmachtGerman General, Rome) in conveying German views to the Italians. If the action of the Italian Supreme Command was influenced by a spirit of deference to German military enlightenment, the Italians nonetheless insisted that the Germans at all times adhere strictly to the form of Italian control, and Hitler supported this arrangement.

Axis operations in 1942 began with marked successes and brought the coalition to the zenith of its fortunes in World War II. Rommel’s late May attack went much more rapidly than had been expected and succeeded in taking Tobruk in June almost immediately instead of being delayed by the kind of stubborn defense which had kept that port from the Germans in early 1941.

British losses of men and materiel were great, but the loss of Tobruk’s port was equally serious. 30 Rommel believed he could continue to Cairo before meeting effective resistance. At that juncture, Hitler was lured into a serious blunder. He had been unable to quiet his misgivings over the projected seizure of Malta, for he felt that the assault was inadequately planned and subsequent support perilously undependable. He therefore proposed to Mussolini that Operation HERKULES, the seizure of Malta, be postponed in favor of a continued drive into Egypt, and Mussolini, despite the demurrer of some of his military advisers, consented.

A new line of supply to Rommel was to run via Crete to Tobruk. Malta was allowed to recover. In July 1942, Rommel’s army got as far inside Egypt as the El Alamein position, some sixty miles southwest of Alexandria, before being held up by lack of supplies and the opposition of the British Eighth Army. On the Eastern Front, the German attacks on the southern sector pressed speedily toward the Don River, heading beyond it toward Stalingrad and the Caucasus.

Such was the situation in the Mediterranean when the Allies faced the question where to attack in 1942.

SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by: George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)

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