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The Desert Fox nearly breaks through
Rommel's surprise offensive in 1942 unnerved the British and led to a shake up in their High Command
Rommel - and German forces - arrived in North Africa in early 1941 to get the Italians out of a predicament. He then made a dramatic advance, pushing the British back to Egypt but had failed to make a clean sweep. In 1941 the Desert war had been dominated by the Siege of Tobruk, the enclave on the north coast of Libya that had held out while surrounded by German forces.
But in November 1941 the British had advanced west in the desert and pushed past Tobruk, ending the siege. There was a counter push from the Germans and the line eventually settled south into the desert from Gazala.
Then in May 1942 Rommel had startled the British with a totally unexpected new offensive:
27th May 1942: In the North African desert British forces are shocked to encounter the massive German infiltration
A series of intense battles ensued but the British strategy of establishing isolated “boxes” in the desert proved their undoing - alongside poor communications and command structures.
Then, most dramatically, Tobruk was overrun.
21st June 1941: Churchill is in Washington when he learns that Tobruk has surrendered, while in the desert British troops are still falling back
The episode was a great embarrassment for Churchill who was in the White House with President Roosevelt when he heard the news.
I did not attempt to hide from the President the shock I had received. It was a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.
Finally the British established a new line at El Alamein.
3rd July 1942: Rommel's advance in the desert finally runs up against a solid British defensive line - and the contested ground of Ruweisat Ridge
‘Whatever we did, wherever we went during these first two weeks of July we were followed by the sickly sweet, pungent, musty odour of decomposing bodies, and hounded by the flies..’
The struggle to hold the El Alamein line continued for some weeks but finally Rommel had been halted. It was not good enough for Churchill - who flew out to Egypt determined to shake things up.
7th August 1942: Churchill demands a new commander for the British 8th Army but only a twist of fate determines that it will be the relatively unknown Bernard Montgomery
Rommel made on last desperate attempt to breakthrough the British lines but his supply situation was now faltering and he faced a much better organised British resistance.
31st August 1942: A dramatic account from a gunner on the Alam el Halfa ridge as British artillery clashes with Rommel's panzers below
There were estimated to be three and a half thousand tanks, troop carriers, armoured cars and transport vehicles spread out in the cauldron below. Forty enemy tanks had dug in immediately below us and were pounding the top of the ridge and another hundred enemy tanks were mustering to the north between the New Zealand Division and ourselves.
In the meantime we derived inspiration and encouragement from the heart stopping sight of three formations of Bostons, dropping their bomb loads with perfect precision on the enemy concentrations of tanks and vehicles. All of the bombing and much of the shelling was clearly visible from our position on the ridge as we continued to fire salvo after salvo into Rommel’s Panzers.
Through September and into October Montgomery refused to be drawn into a pursuit of the Afrika Korps.
Meanwhile Rommel returned to Germany to see Hitler. It was becoming increasingly apparent that Hitler did not have the resources to fight the war that he wanted to fight.
1st October 1942: Hitler begins to pin his hopes on superior weapons to win the war, as his strategic options close down
For a time it had seemed that Rommel might make history and change the course of the war. But the tide was turning.