Tanks Pz.Kpfw.III and Pz.Kpfw.II of the 5th Panzer Division of the African Corps of the Wehrmacht at the parade in Tripoli. March 1941
Catastrophe of the Italian army
In December 1940 - January 1941, the British inflicted a terrible defeat on the superior forces of the Italian army in Libya (Operation Compass. Catastrophe of the Italian army in North Africa). The Italians lost all previously captured positions, a significant part of Cyrenaica, almost the entire army was defeated and taken prisoner (150 thousand soldiers out of 115 thousand were captured). The remnants of the Italian troops were completely demoralized, lost most of their heavy weapons and could not even successfully defend themselves.
However, the British did not complete the defeat of the Italian forces in North Africa and did not take Tripoli. This was due to several reasons:
1) the British at first simply did not realize the scale of their victory and the fact that the enemy had already been destroyed, and you can simply complete the march - to occupy Tripoli;
2) the small number of the British contingent in North Africa, after the defeat of the enemy, one division was removed from the front;
3) the situation in Greece, London decided to help the Greeks and abandon a further offensive in Libya.
As a result, the Italian army escaped complete defeat. And the Italians retained their foothold in North Africa.
Italy urgently needed to strengthen the defense of Tripoli. But in Italy itself there were no large combat-ready reserves equipped with modern weapons and technology to radically change the situation on the Libyan front. In addition, the Italians were defeated both in East Africa, where they were crushed by the British in alliance with the Ethiopian rebels, and in the Balkans, where there was a threat that the Greeks would throw the enemy into the sea from the territory of Albania. The Italian fleet also suffered serious losses. In order to prevent a military-political catastrophe of his main ally and a complete loss of positions in the Mediterranean, Hitler was forced to intervene.
German trucks Opel Blitz and cars of the Wehrmacht Afrika Korps in the port of Tripoli.
In the foreground is the off-road vehicle Voikswagenle.gl. Pkw-K1 Typ 82 Kfz1 "Kubelwagen". February 1941
Unloading a German tank Pz.Kpfw. III in the port of Tripoli
At first, the Fuhrer wanted to send a small detachment to Africa in order to restore the combat capability of the Italian army. However, it quickly became clear that one brigade would not be enough to keep Tripolitania. Therefore, the German Headquarters decided to form the Africa Expeditionary Force, consisting of two divisions (5th Light Division - later renamed 21st Panzer, and 15th Panzer Division) under the command of General Erwin Rommel. To support it from the air, the 10th Air Corps was sent to Sicily. Also, two new Italian divisions were sent to Libya - a tank and an infantry. The Italian army was led (instead of Marshal Graziani, who was dismissed and put on trial) by the commander of the 5th Army, General Gariboldi.
Rommel distinguished himself during the French campaign, bravely and successfully commanding the 7th Panzer Division. On February 6, 1941, Rommel was received by Hitler and Brauchitsch. He was instructed to prevent the Italians from abandoning their positions at El Ageila (Sidra Bay) and to contain the enemy until the arrival of the 15th Division at the end of May. On February 11, the German general arrived in Rome, where he met with the Italian commanders, and on the same day flew to the headquarters of the 10th air corps. There Rommel demanded active action aviation against the enemy base in Benghazi. The next day, the German general arrived in Tripoli, where he met with Gariboldi. On February 14, units of the 5th light division of General Streich began to arrive in Tripoli. Given the difficult situation of the Italian troops, the German units immediately began to be transferred to Sirte, closer to the front line. The 5th division had over 190 tanks and armored vehicles (including 73 newest T-3 tanks and 20 T-4 tanks).
Rommel saw that the Italians were completely morally depressed. There was a lull at the front, but the troops were entirely under the impression of previous crushing defeats. He decided to bring the allies out of their state of apathy and launch an offensive with limited goals before the arrival of the 15th division already at the end of March. Although the Italian command believed that it was impossible to act actively until the end of May, until the entire German corps was in Libya. However, the German commander understood that passive defense did not give any prospects for maintaining positions in North Africa. He wanted to get ahead of the enemy, before the British pulled up reinforcements, and move as far as possible.
Unloading of German equipment in the port of Tripoli. In the foreground is the PzKpfw III Ausf G tank
Situation at the front
Rommel's decision turned out to be correct. By this time, the combat effectiveness of the British grouping - 1 infantry and 1 armored division, 1 infantry brigade and other units (about 40 thousand people in total, 300 tanks), had decreased. The 6th Australian Division, which had extensive combat experience, was sent to Greece, it was replaced by the unexploded 9th Australian Division. The 7th Armored Division was withdrawn to rest and replenishment in Egypt, it was replaced by the 2nd Panzer Division. She also had less combat capability, part of her fleet were captured Italian tanks, which had many shortcomings. German intelligence discovered that the British had two brigades of the 2nd Panzer Division at El Ageila, but they were divided into detachments and scattered on a wide front. The main forces of the 9th division were stationed in the Benghazi area.
Also, the British experienced problems in the supply of troops. A large number of vehicles were sent to Greece. Therefore, the main role in the supply was played by sea transports. And the supply base was Tobruk, from which the troops at the front were 500 km away. The fact is that from the moment the 10th Aviation Corps arrived, the Germans dominated the air. Therefore, the use of Benghazi as a supply base, from which aviation and anti-aircraft artillery was removed (also sent to Greece), had to be abandoned.
Thus, now the British found themselves in the role of Italians. First, their battle formations were stretched, and the Germans could concentrate their forces and strike a strong blow at a weak point. In addition, the British grouping in Libya was weakened by the transfer of troops to Greece. Second, the British were now experiencing supply problems. The Germans dominated the air. Third, British intelligence overslept the enemy's offensive preparations.
At the beginning of March 1941, the British commander Wavell did not consider his position to be threatening. He was aware of the arrival of two Italian divisions and one German formation, the number of which the British estimated as one reinforced panzer regiment. These forces, in the opinion of the British command, would be sufficient at most to push the enemy back to Agedabia. The British did not count on breaking through the enemy to Benghazi. Also, the British believed that it would take at least two months to transport two German divisions to Tripoli. After that, the possibilities of the port of Tripoli as a supply base will be exhausted. In addition, the British did not expect the enemy to launch an offensive during the hot season. Therefore, it is not worth waiting for the offensive of the Italian-German troops until the end of summer. It is possible that active actions fleet and aviation in the Mediterranean (convoy attacks) will hold back the enemy for longer. At the end of March, Wavell, having received new information, was no longer complacent. However, he retained the hope that the enemy could be contained for several months, at which time the situation in the Balkans would improve. Or they will transfer reinforcements to Egypt.
Soldiers of the Australian division in Tobruk
The defeat of the enemy and the fall of Benghazi
Rommel's main striking forces were the 5th Light Division and the Italian Ariete Panzer Division. The local operation at the end of March 1941, thanks to a successful local situation and a bold attack, was successful. One British tank brigade was taken by surprise and destroyed. German aerial reconnaissance confirmed the enemy's flight to Agedabia. Rommel, who initially planned to conduct a limited operation, decided to seize the opportunity and develop an offensive on Agedabia. This strike was also successful. The British rolled back in the direction of Benghazi.
The apparent weakness of the enemy and his desire to avoid a decisive battle led the German commander to the bold idea of recapturing the whole of Cyrenaica. At the same time, Rommel fell out with the Italian command (formally, he was subordinate to the Italian commander-in-chief). Gariboldi, referring to the instructions of Rome, proposed to immediately go on the defensive. However, the German general believed quite rightly - the fleeing enemy must be smashed, not allowed to recover, gain a foothold and bring up reinforcements. It was necessary to pursue the retreating enemy.
On April 4, 1941, the Germans occupied Benghazi without a fight. At this time, the British Panzer Division was in the desert area between Zawiet Msus and El Mekili, while the Australians were retreating to Derna. To destroy the enemy, Rommel sent the 5th division to Mekili, part of the forces to Zaviet-Msus. The Italians walked along the coast. Both sides experienced problems. The Germans, not yet accustomed to the desert, strayed from the right direction, strayed, sandstorms separated the columns, lack of fuel slowed down the troops. But the British had similar problems. Control over British forces was disrupted. British tanks were running low on fuel. Further setbacks and successful German attacks exacerbated the confusion. The fighting continued until April 8th.
The main forces of the Australian division managed to escape along the coastal highway. However, the second brigade of the 2nd Panzer Division, practically without fuel, retreated to Derna, where it was surrounded. On April 7, the brigade surrendered, 6 British generals were captured, including Lieutenant Generals Richard O'Connor and Philip Nimes (the new military governor of Cyrenaica). In El Mekili, Italian-German forces blockaded the headquarters of the 2nd Armored Division, an Indian motorized brigade hastily transferred to help from Tobruk, and other individual units. After unsuccessful attempts to break through, on April 8, the commander of the 2nd Panzer Division, Major General Michael Gambier-Perry, surrendered. 2700 people were taken prisoner.
Erwin Rommel (front center) and Johannes Streich (right) in Tripoli meeting with Italian commander-in-chief Italo Gariboldi and other senior officers
German soldiers inspect British equipment abandoned in El Mekili. April 1941
Siege of Tobruk
As a result, in addition to the hastily assembled small forces on the Libyan-Egyptian border, the British had at their disposal only the 9th Australian Division, which had successfully retreated to Tobruk (which included the 20th and 26th Infantry Brigades, least affected by the retreat from Western Cyrenaica, and the 20th and recently arrived from Egypt 18th Infantry Brigades) and the 7th Panzer Division stationed in Egypt.
The British command decided to concentrate its main forces in Tobruk. The city was turned into a fortified area by the Italians and could fight under siege. Tobruk closed the main coastal highway, could shackle the Italian-German army and prevent it from breaking into Egypt. The supply of the encircled troops could be carried out by sea. Therefore, strong reinforcements were transferred to Tobruk.
On April 10, 1941, the Germans reached Tobruk and on the 11th surrounded the port city. It was not possible to take the well-fortified city on the move (attack on April 13-14). His siege began. Rommel directed the moving parts towards Bardia. On April 12, Italian-German troops entered Bardia, on April 15 they occupied Sidi-Omar, Es-Sallum, the Halfaya pass, the Jarabub oasis. At this point, their progress stopped.
Thus, the bold and unexpected for the British attack of Rommel's relatively small forces was crowned with complete success (despite the Italians' fears and their reluctance to attack. The Italian-German troops recaptured Cyrenaica, occupied Benghazi, besieged Tobruk and reached the Egyptian border. Rommel could not develop the offensive, The forces were small, both sides went on the defensive to build up their forces and attack again. Rommel planned to take Tobruk and strike at Egypt, the British - to release Tobruk.
On April 30, the Germans stormed Tobruk again, but the operation was unsuccessful. Mutual furious but unsuccessful attacks (the Germans attacked, the British counterattacked to regain their lost positions) continued until May 4. The Australians fought fiercely, relying on powerful fortifications. Despite air raids, mining of the port and approaches to it, everything needed from Alexandria constantly arrived in Tobruk by sea. The losses of the British ships eventually became so heavy that they were abandoned. However, fast messengers and destroyers still went to Tobruk and brought all the necessary supplies. Heavy losses of the Italian divisions and the 5th German division convinced the Italian-German command of the impossibility of a successful assault in the near future. The stake was made on the exhaustion of the enemy and the arrival of strong reinforcements.
On the border of Libya and Egypt, the British launched a limited offensive on May 15 to improve their positions for a future breakthrough to Tobruk. The British advanced as far as Es Sallum and Ridotta Capuzzo. Rommel responded immediately, and two days later recaptured the British-occupied strongholds. The British only held the Halfaya pass. This was the only place for tanks to cross the mountains. This passage was essential for the control of the area. On May 27, the Germans recaptured the pass. The British attacked again, but without success.
This operation clearly shows what Hitler could have done if he really wanted England to be defeated. If Rommel were immediately given not one corps, but an army and a whole air army, then he would have every chance to seize not only Cyrenaica, but also Egypt with a swift and powerful onslaught, to intercept the Suez Canal, the most important communication of the British Empire. This would sharply worsen the military-strategic, naval, air and economic positions of England. The Germans and Italians received the most important bridgehead in the region, land, sea and air bases. After the capture of the Balkans (Yugoslavia and Greece) and the abandonment of the Russian campaign, Hitler could transfer more troops to Africa. Conduct a number of operations in the Mediterranean (Malta, Gibraltar). Develop an offensive against Palestine, then Mesopotamia, Iran and India. The Italians, with the support of the Germans, got the opportunity to take revenge in East Africa. Hitler gave London check and checkmate.
German medium and light tanks from the 5th Panzer Regiment of the 5th Light Armored Division on Tripoli Street before the parade
A British army patrol near the cathedral in Tobruk, besieged by German-Italian forces. April 1941
Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel with 15th Panzer Division between Tobruk and Sidi Omar, Libya. Rommel drives an average single off-road vehicle (mittelschwerer geländegängiger PKW, Typ 40). May 1941