Montgomery battles on, Rommel bows out

The crew of a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun watch the sky after a Stuka raid during the 8th Army's advance on Tripoli, 29 January 1943.

The crew of a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun watch the sky after a Stuka raid during the 8th Army’s advance on Tripoli, 29 January 1943.

Sherman tanks during the advance along the coast road towards Tripoli, 27 January 1943.

Sherman tanks during the advance along the coast road towards Tripoli, 27 January 1943.

A piper of the Gordon Highlanders plays from a Valentine tank as it drives into Tripoli past crowds of cheering locals, 26 January 1943.

A piper of the Gordon Highlanders plays from a Valentine tank as it drives into Tripoli past crowds of cheering locals, 26 January 1943.

The British Eighth Army entered Tripoli on the 23rd January, exactly three months since they had launched the offensive against the Afrika Korps at El Alamein, on 23rd October. They had been pursuing the Germans and Italians, led by Rommel, all the way west ever since.

Tripoli’s major port was the first opportunity to start to re-equip an army that was beginning to look very worn out and threadbare. For many men it was the first chance to replace a ragged uniform and worn out boots. They also got a change in diet after months of ‘bully beef, rice and tea, and very little else.’ Tinned fruit was to make a welcome appearance at Tripoli.

For Montgomery, commanding Eighth Army, it was just a brief pause in the campaign. Neil McCallum was one of the officers who was briefed by him during this period. For him, like many men who encountered Montgomery, it was a memorable experience:

Montgomery has spoken to the officers of the Corps. We gathered in Tripoli in the Miramare Cinema. The auditorium was crowded and on the stage was a notice ‘No Smoking’.

When Montgomery stepped on the stage the auditorium was in darkness and the stage was brilliantly lit from the sides and from above. In this setting he stood dapper and neat and alone. He stood away from the small reading-table and spoke without notes, lightly fingering the belt of his battle-dress.

By some trick of illumination there were shadows cast on his face so that the eyes were in deep pools of darkness and the bony prominences were emphasised. It gave his face the appearance of a skull, and at times it seemed, from my seat at the back of the hall, that we were being addressed by a skeleton in uniform.

Montgomery’s attitude, his personality, were as deliberately arranged as the setting. His cockiness, his unbounded self confidence have long ago become a byéword. All this is part of his success as a general.

When he first stepped on the stage he told us to cough and blow our noses and then be silent. We would later on be permitted to cough at intervals. The pride he showed in the Eighth Army – ‘my army, my soldiers’ – just escaped self-flattery.

His aggressiveness in the field was carried into his talk. It allowed of no modesty, mock or real. He was enthusiastic about what had been accomplished but only in so far as it was a stepping-stone to what he now intended to do.

That, he said, was the wiping out of Panzer Army Rommel. “Rommel has the jitters,” he said. “I hope Rommel is still in Tunisia. As long as he remains in command I’ve nothing to worry about. My only worry is that someone else may be given the job. But I’ll tell you this. Before long Tunis will see a first-class Dunkirk.”

In that way he told us what we were to do next. “The Eighth Army is going to Tunis.”

See Neil McCallum: Journey with a Pistol: a diary of war.

General Montgomery reads the lesson at an open air Thanksgiving Service near Tripoli for units of the Eighth Army.

General Montgomery reads the lesson at an open air Thanksgiving Service near Tripoli for units of the Eighth Army.

The myth of Rommel had been broken, at least as far as Eighth Army was concerned, and Montgomery was bound to underline it.

For his part Rommel was equally uncomplimentary about Montgomery, and writes how he could easily have broken the weak British line of advance if only he had had enough petrol. He was never to learn that Montgomery had been able to plan his dispositions in the full knowledge that Rommel did not have any petrol – because of British Enigma intelligence.

Rommel was about to be removed from his command. On the 28th January he wrote to his wife:

Dearest Lu

In a few days I shall be giving up command of the army to an Italian, for the sole reason that “ my present state of health does not permit me to carry on.” Of course it’s really for quite other reasons, principally that of prestige. I have done all I can to maintain the theatre of war, in spite of the indescribable difficulties in all fields. I am deeply sorry for my men. They were very dear to me.

Physically, I am not too well. Severe headaches and overstrained nerves, on top of the circulation trouble, allow me no rest. Professor Horster is giving me sleeping draughts and helping as far as he can. Perhaps I’ll have a few weeks to recover, though with the situation as it is in the East, what one would like is to be in the front line.

NB The original handwritten diary is not very legible for the italicised part.

See The Rommel Papers.

ALSO ON THIS DAY…

The campaign in Africa was still not finished. One man who had played a key role in organising the secret navigation lights that had assisted the invasion was now going into the field himself, to help co-ordinate behind the lines in Tunisia.

Squadron Leader Hugh Mallory Falconer had begun his military career as an officer in the Royal Signals in the British Army, then time as a Private in the French Foreign Legion. After war broke out he became an RAF officer. The last time he had seen the Wehrmacht close up they were entering the RAF airfield in France that he was fleeing from, having just set fire to the petrol dump. Soon his command of the French language and signals experience saw him recruited into the Special Operations Executive.

Falconers experiences with the Germans over the next few years would be very different, and take him to some very dark places.

Towards the end of January 1943 I landed at night with my two companions on the coast of Tunisia behind enemy lines, wearing civilian clothes and carrying my wireless transmitter in its suitcase.

The landing was a terrifying business made, after a fast trip from Malta, from a motor torpedo boat. This vessel was propelled at enormous speed by three Packard aircraft engines which made one hell of a row. The lieutenant, whose pride and joy this vessel was, assured me that the secrecy of our landing would not be compromised by the noise because the boat could run at reduced speed on one engine only which could be silenced.

Sure enough, we crept into land with no more than a murmur from the machinery and we paddled our canvas dinghy ashore to a completely deserted landscape. However, as soon as we were safely disembarked and had sent the agreed torch signal back to the MTB, it turned and headed out to sea with a shattering roar, all engines all out with a phosphorescent wake which could be seen for miles. Fortunately this performance appeared to arouse no curiosity on the part of the local inhabitants. I think there must already have been so many inshore reconnaissances carried out by naval patrols that this one elicited no special interest.

Having with some difculty evaded various sentries and patrols, we entered Tunis on foot and were promptly caught in the curfew, thanks to the positive but quite erroneous information I had been given in Malta that there was no curfew! At least we were without the suitcase which we had prudently hidden before entering the town.

The military patrol, as was their custom with civilian prisoners, handed us over to the Gestapo.

To be taken prisoner of war, in uniform, must be to experience frustration, disappointment and probably resentment at the forced inactivity to come. For an agent in civilian clothes caught behind the enemy lines and in the hands of the Gestapo, there must be an additional and predominant sensation — fear.

Even today, long after it has ceased to exist, the evil reputation of the Gestapo, its pitiless methods and its ruthless cruelty are remembered with horror. Later generations who know little of those times nevertheless associate the word ‘Gestapo’ with oppression and terror. No jewish child is left ignorant of an organisation which relentlessly and systematically murdered not thousands but millions of men, women and children whose only offence had been to be born Jews.

For three days I was left in a cell with nothing to do but ponder on my predicament. The cell, which was about five paces long and two wide, was all in concrete except the door which was steel. Half the floor space was taken up by a concrete bench intended to serve as a bed and in one corner there was a bucket accessible to the tenant and removable from outside through a hatch. The window, about two feet square, was high up in the wall opposite the door, heavily barred, without glass and quite out of reach. It was dark and gloomy, the walls ran with damp and there was a constant draught between the door and the window. There were two threadbare blankets and that was all.

It would be foolish to pretend that my reactions could be anything but terrifying. The Hague Convention offered no protection to people like me who were caught behind the enemy lines in civilian clothes and obviously up to no good.

There had been previous occasions in my life which had been fraught with considerable danger but there had always been something, however feeble, I could do about it. When under enemy fire I could shoot back hope to hit the other chap before he hit me. On the beaches at Dunkirk or in an enemy air raid I could take shelter and hope that it would be effective. In any case I had known that I was not personally the enemy’s target.

Usually such periods of risk never lasted very long and there was always a reasonable hope of survival. In my dark, damp cell I was left to acknowledge that I was, personally and individually, in the enemy’s sights and that there was nothing that I could do about it. There seemed to be no hope at all.

The first twenty—four hours seemed like an eternity – an eternity of black despair. Then all of a sudden I realised that there was, after all, one tiny spark of hope in the darkness because there was really no reason to suppose that the Gestapo thought me to be other than the Frenchman I had declared myself to be.

So I concentrated on how to persuade the Gestapo that I was not only harmless to their cause but indeed friendly. I must try to give the impression that I myself was so sure of my innocence that my immediate release could only be a matter of course; that any impending interrogation would be merely a friendly chat; that with a merry quip and perhaps even a shake of the hand I would be led to the gate and speeded on my way.

How successful I would be I could not of course predict, nor was I at all certain that I had either the ability or the nerve to perform the role I had chosen but, in the absence of any other plan, it seemed the only thing to do. At least it could not make matters worse.

How to do this, the line to take and the attitude to adopt had the priceless virtue of giving me something to think about other than my desperate situation. To some extent it even helped me now and again to forget the dank and gloomy discomfort of my cell. It kept my mind busy and fear more or less in the background.

See The Gestapo’s Most Improbable Hostage.

Hitler shaking hands with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel after the latter's return from Africa.

Hitler shaking hands with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel after the latter’s return from Africa.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ned Lewis January 29, 2018 at 11:03 pm

It has been firmly established that the Germans COULDN’T “do in Malta what they did on Crete”, (I am assuming that what Mr. West means by that is a full scale airborne invasion, with paratroopers & gliders). During the invasion of Crete, the Germans had every advantage over the British & what remained of the Greek Army that had managed to retreat to Crete. The entire global war situation had flipped in the Allies favor by the time the Germans really needed to either occupy or totally incapacitate Malta as a port & base for aircraft. Once the United States & the USSR are brought into the war, there is no possible way for the Germans to win. Win anywhere, win anything. One European nation, even with the resources of Occupied Europe behind it, could not possibly stand a chance against the combined might of manpower & industry that the USA/USSR/British Empire could bring to bear against Germany. Only a demented, race-obsessed, parvenu like Hitler would declare war on all three with 2 years & think things would go well.

Leonard West January 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

It has always troubled me that the Germans never did to Malta what they did to Crete. Malta, it seems to me, was the lynch pin as to why they could never supply Rommel with the supplies that he needed. Had Hitler and the German High Command viewed the battle in North Africa more strategically, they would have realized that defeating the British in North Africa would have given the Germans the Suez, and may have actually brought Britain to her knees. Take the Suez, and pretty much all of the Middle East and all its oil would have been his for the taking.

jon livesey January 29, 2014 at 3:41 am

I am afraid Gary is missing the point. Because of the British naval blockade the Axis did not have oil to give to Rommel, and because of British command of the Mediterranean, they couldn’t get it to him even if they had had it.

They were focused on the Eastern Front because that was where they hoped to get the oil the British were denying them.

There is a strategic sense to the war. It’s not just people making random errors. British command of the sea was so complete that they could supply and reinforce their army in Egypt round the Cape far more efficiently than the Axis could supply Rommel one hop across the Mediterranean

Gary Cargill February 9, 2013 at 10:03 pm

If Rommel had been given an additional two panzer corps and “enough petrol” in the spring or summer of ’42, he would have easily broken through at El Alamein to Cairo and then swept the thinly defended Middle East. The German High Command simply could not grasp the strategic opportunities that were lost in North Africa. They were just too focused on the Eastern Front, where the overwhelming bulk of the German Wehrmacht forces were concentrated.

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