Rommel’s surprise attack in the Desert

A British Matilda tank in the Western Desert, recaptured from the Germans who had used it against the British in Bardia, 3 January 1942.

On the map the British lines in North Africa looked much better following the success of Operation Crusader, when they had relieved Tobruk and forced the Afrika Korps into a long retreat. However there was now a repetition of events a year earlier. Then the British had withdrawn forces to mount the ill fated Greek expedition. Now reinforcements that had been designated for North Africa were diverted to the Far East – many going to Singapore.

The experienced troops who had fought through Operation Crusader were out of the line replenishing and recuperating. On the front line facing Rommel was the relatively inexperienced 1st Division untrained in desert warfare, at the far end of a long supply chain. They were preparing for another advance and had not prepared defensive positions – because British intelligence believed that Rommel too was resting and re-equipping.

Unfortunately Rommel was not a man to rest and he had managed to re-equip his forces very quickly. Even if he did not have all the resources that many a General would have wanted to mount an attack, he believed that a surprise ‘Blitkrieg’ was possible, and he was fully prepared to exploit whatever successes that might bring:

We had now developed a new method of attack. With our twelve anti-tank guns we leap-frogged from one vantage-point to another, while our Panzers, stationary and hull-down, if possible, provided protective fire. Then we would establish ourselves to give them protective fire while they swept on again.

The tactics worked well and, despite the liveliness of the fire, the enemy’s tanks were not able to hold up our advance. He steadily sustained losses and had to give ground constantly. We could not help feeling that we were not then up against the tough and experienced opponents who had harried us so hard on the Trigh Capuzzo.

We were not entirely happy about our petrol position. Yet one young officer, who said to Rommel, ‘Herr General, we need more fuel’, received the brisk answer: ‘Well, go and get it from the British.’

See Heinz Werner Schmidt: With Rommel in the Desert.

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