Rommel’s last throw of the dice

Rommel in his command vehicle in the summer of 1942 with Panzer Geenral Fritz Bayerlein.

In the desert Erwin Rommel had been desperately trying to build up his forces for one last attack on the British lines and a breakthrough to Alexandria and the Suez canal. He was not a well man, his fellow officers were very concerned about his exhausted state, combined with a chronic digestive complaint. One of Germany’s leading stomach specialists, Professor Dr Forster, had been sent out to attend to him.

Yet Rommel knew that he could not rest – if he did not break through almost immediately the chance would be gone, the British lines would be re-enforced. So despite severe fuel shortages, that would be only be resolved by a tanker yet to arrive, he decided to attack. It was now or never. In his view the Germans either broke through decisively in Russia or Egypt, or the war was lost.

On the morning of the 30th he wrote to his wife:

Dearest Lu,

To-day has dawned at last. It’s been such a long wait worrying all the time whether I should get everything I needed together to enable me to take the brakes off again. Many of my worries have been by no means satisfactorily settled and we have some very grave shortages. But I’ve taken the risk, for it will be a long time before we get such favourable conditions of moonlight, relative strengths, etc., again. I, for my part, will do my utmost to contribute to success.

As for my health, I’m feeling quite on top of my form. There are such big things at stake. If our blow succeeds, it might go some way towards deciding the whole course of the war. If it fails, at least I hope to give the enemy a pretty thorough beating. Neurath has seen the Fuehrer, who sent me his best wishes. He is fully aware of my anxieties.

In the event it soon became apparent that the opportunity had probably already passed. It was no longer possible to make rapid Panzer thrusts and turn the British line. The attack began on the evening of the 30th:

Shortly after passing the eastern boundary of our own minefields, our troops came up against an extremely strong and hitherto unsuspected British mine belt, which was stubbornly defended. Under intensely heavy artillery fire, the sappers and infantry eventually succeeded in clearing lanes through the British barrier, although at the cost of very heavy casualties and a great deal of time – in many cases it needed three attempts. The minefields, which contained an extraordinary number of mines (according to our estimate there were 150,000 in the sector where we attacked), were of great depth and protected by numerous booby-traps.

Before long, relay bombing attacks by the R.A.F. began on the area occupied by our attacking force. With parachute flares turning night into day, large formations of aircraft unloosed sticks of H.E. bombs among my troops.

See The Rommel Papers .

Two members of a Crusader tank’s crew write home before setting off on patrol in the Western Desert, 28 August 1942. Note the mosquito nets round their faces to keep the flies away.

Crusader tanks on patrol in the Western Desert, 28 August 1942

The crews of Crusader tanks bed down for the night beside their vehicles in the Western Desert, 28 August 1942.

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