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

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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