British insight into the German military machine

Panzer II of the 15th Panzer Divison in North Africa.

German troops on a captured British Matilda tank earlier in 1942.

General von Thoma, commander of the Afrika Corps had been captured by the British on the 4th of November. He was flown back to Britain on the 18th of November accompanied, apparently by chance, by German speaking Air Vice-Marshal A.C. Collier. They fell into conversation and it was discovered that they had a mutual friend in Germany whom Collier had studied with.

The conversation developed during the course of the long flight and Collier was soon able to build up a wide ranging picture of conditions in Germany, attitudes to their Italian allies, and the state of the German armed forces. The record of the conversation was considered to be such useful intelligence that it was soon circulated to all members of the British War Cabinet.

General der Panzertruppe Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, captured by the British during the Battle of El Alamein.

His views on the attitude of the German people seemed to give support to the British view that the sustained bombing campaign against Germany might yet produce regime change:

He referred repeatedly to the enormous strain which the German Army and the whole German people had had to bear for the last nine years. The German people were beginning to realise that British and American war production, together with that of Russia, would quickly outstrip their own output and would then place them in an impossible military position.

As soon as the German workman was given time to pause and to realise the failure of the Nazi programme, his reaction would be most bitter and there would be acute trouble in Germany. Von Thoma seemed to assume a victory of the Allies in a not distant future, and referred to the difficulties of the peace.

[I]f Italian divisions failed to get away from El Alamein, it was the fault of the Italians themselves. Italian equipment was ludicrously antiquated and deficient. The eight Italian divisions were all quite unsuited to warfare in the desert against an Army equipped with modern British and American munitions.

Von Thoma was constantly hampered by lack or shortage of fuel. Italian arrangements for the security of convoys failed repeatedly. The loading and unloading of ships was done slowly and inefficiently.

Recently 80 new Italian tanks had been left standing near the port of unloading for want of fuel. The tragedy was not as great as it seemed, inasmuch as the tanks were badly designed and constructed and practically worthless for modern war. He had told the Italians that 80 tins of sardines would have suited him better.

Were it not for the fuel and supplies obtained in Tobruk, the position of the German and Italian armies in the desert would have become acute some months ago. The Germans found conditions in the desert most trying. They were not suited to warfare under these climatic and geographic conditions.

Von Thoma considers that the Germans have no chance of holding Tunisia. The last-minute reinforcements now being dispatched would be no match for the British and American forces landed in North Africa. Germany should admit failure on the North Coast of Africa and should now be employing all her resources in the Mediterranean for the defence of the inner line represented by Crete, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia.

If the Germans were sending their Mark 6 tanks to Tunisia it would be deplorable, as they would be destroyed or captured by us. This tank is a very good one and has marked advantages over the Mark 4.

From the British War Cabinet Minutes and Discussion Papers see TNA CAB 66/31/49.

Rommel inspects Italian tank forces earlier in 1942

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