At El Alamein Rommel was realising that the British onslaught could not be resisted. His own diminishing forces were further weakened by a ‘critical’ shortage of ammunition and petrol. Almost every ship in Tobruk harbour had been bombed, and the British had ‘complete command’ of the sea and air in the area behind the battlefield.
Rommel was already beginning to extricate his troops with a view to making a fighting retreat. He assessed the situation in the daily note he sent to his wife:
3rd November 1942
The battle is going very heavily against us. We’re simply being crushed by the enemy weight. I’ve made an attempt to salvage part of the army. I wonder if it will succeed. At night I lie open-eyed, racking my brains for a way out of this plight for my poor troops.
We are facing very difficult days, perhaps the most difficult that a man can undergo. The dead are lucky, it’s all over for them.
I think of you constantly with heartfelt love and gratitude. Perhaps all will yet be well and we shall see each other again.
As the day went on things got worse:
At nine in the morning I drove east along the coast road as far as Forward HQ. Large numbers of vehicles, mainly Italian, were jammed up on the road, but surprisingly there were no British fighter-bombers about.
At about 10.00 hours General von Thoma and Colonel Bayerlein reported that the British were lying in a semicircle in front of the Afrika Korps, which still possessed 30 serviceable tanks.
The British were making only probing and local attacks and appeared to be reorganising and supplying their formations. The moment seemed propitious, and I gave orders for part of the Italian formations to march off.
Despite our frequent reminders, the vehicles promised by Barbassetti had still not arrived, and so the Italians had to march. Dense columns of vehicles were already streaming westwards. The Italian infantry marched off and soon the road was full of traffic. But the British soon spotted our move and attacked the coast road with about 200 Fighter-bombers. Their bomber squadrons were also extremely active that day.
The Afrika Korps alone was attacked no less than eleven times during the morning by strong formations of bombers.
At about midday I returned to my command post, only just escaping, by some frantic driving, a carpet of bombs laid by 18 British aircraft. At 13.30 hours an order arrived from the Fuehrer.
See The Rommel Papers .
Hitler was not a man who believed in tactical or strategic retreats, as many in the Wehrmacht would begin to discover as the tide of war began to turn against the Germans.
To Field Marshal Rommel
It is with trusting confidence in your leadership and the courage of the German-Italian troops under your command that the German people and I are following the heroic struggle in Egypt.
In the situation in which you find yourself there can be no other thought but to stand fast, yield not a yard of ground and throw every gun and every man into the battle. Considerable air force reinforcements are being sent to C.in C. South.
The Duce and the Commando Supremo are also making the utmost efforts to send you the means to continue the fight. Your enemy, despite his superiority, must also be at the end of his strength.
It would not be the first time in history that a strong will has triumphed over the bigger battalions. As to your troops, you can show them no other road than that to victory or death.
Rommel was to describe this as an ‘impossible order’ – he was ‘completely stunned’ by it. From now on he was to find his freedom of movement and decision making constantly curtailed by Hitler. If he wanted to preserve his Army he would have to find ways to circumvent Hitler in the future.