Berlin, Germany · February 6, 1941

During the German invasion of France in 1940, an am­bi­tious general named Erwin Rommel distin­guished him­self as the “lead from the front” com­mander of the 7th Pan­zer Divi­sion. His armored for­ma­tion was nick­named the “Ghost Divi­sion” owing to its rapid thrusts and inde­pen­dence. Adolf Hitler had more than a nodding acquain­tance with the 50-year-old tank com­man­der. Rom­mel had served on Hitler’s staff during the 1939 Poland cam­paign and had organ­ized the Fuehrer’s vic­tory parade back in Ber­lin. On this date in 1941 Hitler picked Rom­mel to head two Ger­man Pan­zer divi­sions that would help reverse British Com­mon­wealth advances into Italy’s North Afri­can colony of Libya, where in the pre­vious three months Benito Mus­so­lini’s army had lost 130,000 men as pri­soners and almost 400 tanks. On Febru­ary 12 the Ger­man Luft­waffe, in its first action in Africa, attacked British-occupied Ben­ghazi in Cyre­naica, the east­ern coastal region of Libya. At the same time Ger­man troops, em­barking at Naples, Italy, began landing in Tri­poli, Libya’s capi­tal in the west­ern half of the colony, while Rom­mel arrived in Tripoli by plane to take com­mand of an elite force soon to become the legen­dary Afrika Korps. (Ger­man assets in Africa evolved under a number of names, but the Afrika Korps remained at the center.) Theo­re­tically sub­or­di­nate to the Ital­ian high com­mand, and defi­nitely sub­ordi­nate to his Ger­man com­manders, Rom­mel ignored their wishes that his com­bined Ger­man-Ital­ian army main­tain a chiefly defen­sive pos­ture in Libya. Within a month his forces had pushed the Brit­ish, with the excep­tion of 25,000 besieged in the port town of Tobruk, out of Cyre­nai­ca all the way back into Egypt (see map). British Com­mon­wealth forces re­grouped in the form of the Brit­ish Eighth Army under the newly appointed Lt. Gen. Bernard Mont­gomery, who bested the sea­soned Rom­mel (now a field marshal) in the deci­sive Second Battle of El Ala­mein (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 4, 1942). Opera­tion Torch, which landed Allied troops in Morocco and Algeria also in Novem­ber, ended Axis for­tunes in North Africa in May 1943 with the capture of 250,000 German and Italian soldiers, two and a half times more than had sur­rendered to the Red Army at Stalin­grad the previous Febru­ary. It was a major victory and a crucial stepping­stone to the future invasion of Italy and France.

[amazon_carousel widget_type=”ASINList” width=”600″ height=”200″ title=”Recommended Reading” market_place=”US” shuffle_products=”False” show_border=”False” asin=”0811735605,081170419X,0142003948,0811705919,1849086400,1846031443,0471414298,1468304984,1580970184,0521509718″ /]

Erwin Rommel in Poland, France, and North Africa, 1939–1943

Map of Western Desert, showing Rommel’s offensive, March 24 to June 15, 1941

Above: The Western Desert area, showing Rommel’s first offensive, March 24 to June 15, 1941 (between arrows at bottom of map, admittedly difficult to see). Rommel caused havoc to British army for­tunes in North­east Africa, stopped only after Lt. Gen. Bernard Mont­gomery had assumed com­mand of the British Eighth Army in August 1942. El Alamein, the site of a small rail­way station where Mont­gomery threw Rommel’s army into reverse in late October–early November 1942, appears at the right edge of this map.

Rommel (center) on Hitler’s left in Poland, September 1939Rommel (center) and staff during the French campaign, June 1940

Left: Rommel (1891–1944) to Hitler’s left during the German “blitzkrieg” campaign in Poland, September 1939. Less than a year later Rommel employed the same techniques to great effect during the German rush through France in May and June 1940.

Right: Rommel with 7th Panzer Division staff in France, June 1940. Rommel’s Panzer division was the first German unit to reach the English Channel in the Wehrmacht’s drive to the French coast. The 7th Panzer captured Cherbourg on June 18 and was approaching Bor­deaux when the French and the Ger­mans signed an armistice on June 21, 1940. Almost a month earlier Rommel was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, the first divisional commander to be so honored during the West European campaign.

Rommel, North Africa, June 1942Montgomery, North Africa, November 1942

Left: The “Desert Fox” with his aides in North Africa, June 1942, on the eve of the First Battle of El Alamein (July 1–27, 1942). Although a stale­mate, the battle halted a second advance by Rom­mel’s forces into Egypt. However, the German-Italian pre­sence near El Alamein, only 66 miles from the major British port of Alexandria, Egypt, was dangerously close to major population centers and the Suez Canal for the Allied forces to allow the status quo to remain. A Second Battle of El Alamein under newly appointed Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery ended the Axis threat to Egypt, the Suez Canal, and any poten­tial that the Germans might gain access to the Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields.

Right: Montgomery directing operations in North Africa, November 1942. Rommel exerted an almost hypnotic influence not only over his own troops on account of his tactical brilliance, bravery, and decency in his treatment of Allied prisoners (he was praised by no less a figure than Winston Chur­chill in January 1942) but also over the soldiers of the British Eighth Army in World War II. Montgomery kept a photograph of Rommel on the wall of his command trailer.

Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps Takes on British Commonwealth Forces in North Africa, 1941–1942