WW2 Anniversary

|   26 March 2011

Fighting in the desert

The desert of Libya

Seventy years ago this month, the most brilliant German battlefield commander of the war, Erwin Rommel, was fighting over the exact same territory in Libya as the rebels are today.

Rommel, who had only arrived to take up command of German forces in North Africa just days before, led in March 1941 one of the most audacious offensives in modern military history against British, Commonwealth and Empire troops who were defending Benghazi and Tobruk in Western Libya. The British swiftly withdrew from Benghazi and the Germans laid siege to Tobruk.

Rommel’s genius was in understanding the nature of desert war – which must be conducted as a war of swift movement. Rommel was uninterested in where the ‘front line’ was. ‘In a vast ocean like desert,’ one soldier of Rommel’s Afrika Korps told me, ‘we were taught that there can never be a front line.’ Instead, Rommel led a series of armoured raids, practicing the same tactics he had used in the immensely successful German invasion of France the previous year. Rommel believed that motorized units should attack with all guns blazing. It scarcely mattered if they knew precisely what they were aiming at. What was important was to create an effect of ‘shock and awe’.

I’ve always felt that General Montgomery’s eventual victory over Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942 was more to do with the fact that the territory around El Alamein allowed Montgomery to plan the action as a ‘traditional’ battle since marshland to the south meant that – uniquely – a ‘front line’ of sorts could be created in the desert. Victory for Montgomery did not signal the arrival of a great new individual military genius as is sometimes claimed. Montgomery possessed vastly superior numbers of troops and was informed by intelligence from German codes which had been broken. Nor did Montgomery manage fully to exploit his victory at El Alamein.

Unlike Montgomery, Rommel understood, just as the rebels in Libya seem to understand today as they rush on the oil cities east of Ajdabiya, that in modern warfare vast distances can be traveled across this landscape almost in an instant.

One Response to “Fighting in the desert”

  1. Turniphead says:

    Montgomery has always been a hero of mine. He intelligently used geography to win the battle where immense bravery was shown. He used the information wisely to achieve victory -don’t knock it!