(Feb. 12, 2021) Eighty years ago today, German Gen. Erwin Rommel arrived in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Before his departure from the North African shore, he would earn the sobriquet “The Desert Fox,” and the admiration of friend and foe alike.
His nemesis, at El Alamein, British Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery, kept an oil portrait of him in his headquarters. His name inspired fear in his enemies and adulation from his German and Italian soldiers.
In explaining the North African situation to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill said in November 1941, “We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.”
Later when the prime minister was visiting Cairo, the thought of that great general would keep him up at night as he would repeat, “Rommel, Rommel, Rommel, Rommel! What else matters but beating him?!” Others say that extolling Rommel excused British deficiencies in leadership.
Libya had become an Italian colony in 1912, after Italy’s brief war with the Ottoman Turkish Empire. At the time, it was actually three colonies. Tripolitania, of which Tripoli was the capital, occupied the northwestern portion of Libya. It bordered Tunisia on its west, and Cyrenaica, of which Benghazi was the capital, on its east. Cyrenaica shared its eastern border with Egypt.
Both Cyrenaica and Tripolitania bordered the south shore of the Mediterranean Sea. South of Tripolitania lay Fezzan, with its southern border on the French colony of Chad. The capital of Fezzan is Subha, which today has a population of 100,000+/-. It is where former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddaffi was raised and educated.
The three provinces were combined into one colony, with its capital at Tripoli, in 1934. By royal decree, issued on Jan. 9, 1939, Libya was incorporated into Italy, making it a part of the empire. Now, it was more than just a colony.
In early December, at a meeting of the Axis Supreme Command in Innsbruck, Marshal Graziani expressed the Italian Duce’s wish to go it alone in Africa. Therefore, the plans to transfer a German armored brigade and an air corps were canceled.
Within two weeks, the Italian perspective had changed, as they were quickly driven out of Egypt and Cyrenaica, with Benghazi lost and Tripoli threatened. Now, the Italian Duce had to ask his German ally for help.
On Jan. 9, 1941, the German Führer ordered, “... a blocking force ...”to be sent. Meanwhile, Marshal Graziani ordered his Italian soldiers to fortify Tripoli against the anticipated Commonwealth assault. All the while, the German high command was busy preparing offenses against Yugoslavia, Greece, and the Soviet Union.
Hitler, on Feb. 6, ordered that the blocking line was to be as far east as possible. On the same day, orders were given to commence the transportation of German forces to Tripoli. Now that, that decision had been made, these forces needed a commander.
The German Führer selected Erwin Rommel, who would, technically, be subordinate to the top Italian commander in Libya.
The day before Rommel’s arrival, the first German troops had also arrived in Tripoli. They were not combat soldiers, but rather were specialists in administration and logistics, and were there to prepare the area for the arrival of the men who would do the fighting.
First came the 3rd Motorized Reconnaissance Battalion and the 39th Anti-Tank Battalion. In March, artillery and armored vehicles arrived. These first units, commanded by Johannes Streich, would constitute the 5th Light Division, which would be a part of the famed Deutsches Afrikakorps — DAK. Later in the spring, the Light Division would be joined by the 15th Panzerdivision, commanded by Gustav von Vaerst.
Rommel had been commander of the Führer’s escort regiment during the Polish campaign and had, during the Battle of France commanded the 7th Armored Division, which had advanced so quickly that it earned the soubriquet of “Ghost Division,” because no one knew its location!
In Rommel, the German leader had picked the perfect man for the task ahead. There was never any doubt about Rommel’s bravery. He had won the coveted Pour le Mérite (“The Blue Max”) in WWI fighting against the Italians.
The Pour le Mérite was, at that time, Germany’s highest award for bravery. He never let his Italian allies forget that it was won fighting against them. And, as Commander of the “Ghost Division,” he led from the front, something he would continue in North Africa.
The events which brought these Germans to the North African shore was the destruction of the Italian Tenth Army, coupled with the consequent conquest of Cyrenaica and much of Tripolitania by Commonwealth forces. Hitler realized that if he didn’t do something, his Italian ally would fall. It was also determined to send units of the Luftwaffe.
On Feb. 9, 1941, the Italian Duce accepted Rommel as commander of the mobile forces and replaced Marshal Graziani with Gen. Italo Gariboldi, previously commander of the Fifth Army. The German general flew to Rome two days later for a conference with Mussolini, after which he flew to Sicily and conferred with the commander of the Luftwaffe’s X Air Corps, commanded by Hans Geisler.
The following day, Gen. Rommel arrived in Africa. Not only would he have command of the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Divisions, but also the Italian Armored Division Ariete, commanded by Ettore Baldassarre.
In the spring the motorized infantry division Trento, commanded by Luigi Nuvoloni arrived.
Both generals would later be promoted to corps commanders. The Ariete had received the newest Italian tanks and some training with the Germans.
In addition, there were several infantry divisions which would be put at the German general’s disposal — Brescia, Pavia and Bologna, commanded by Gens. Giuseppe Cremascoli, Pietro Zaglio and Carlo Gotti.
Unbeknownst to the Axis, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had intervened to cut the Commonwealth’s advance short. He ordered that two of the best divisions — 6th Australian Infantry and 7th Armoured — be transferred to Greece, where they would be wasted.
The new commander, wasting little time in establishing his reputation, sent 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, on Feb. 16, 280 miles east along the Via Balbia to a position east of Sirte. Sirte is located on the Gulf of Sirte, and today has a population of 128,000.
However, at the time, it was described as, “. . . a shabby little Arab village of mud huts, clustered on the banks of a foul-smelling stream.” It was in one of those mud huts that Muammar Gaddafi was born in 1942, seven miles south of Sirte.
On Feb. 19, Axis patrols drove off British reconnaissance units near En Nofalia, 70 miles east of Sirte. It was the first, of many, clashes between the Italo-German and Commonwealth forces.
Next week: German Battleship Tirpitz
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.