A World in Flames: A Short History of the Second World War in Europe and Asia, 1939-1945

By Martin Kitchen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR

The War in the Mediterranean (March 1941-May 1943)

At the beginning of March 1941, Rommel reported to the OHL that he intended to go on the offensive as soon as possible. His immediate aim was to recapture Cyrenaica, and if all went well he intended to push on into Egypt and seize the Suez Canal. Both Halder and Brauchitsch strongly supported the idea of an offensive, but Halder felt that it would be impossible to advance any further than Tobruk. Brauchitsch, who was preoccupied with planning for 'Barbarossa' and who argued that supplies would not be available for such an ambitious strategy in north Africa, doubted whether Rommel would be able to advance much beyond Agedabia.

Rommel returned to Africa with a somewhat less ambitious programme. He ordered an offensive to secure the approaches to Agedabia. This proved a relatively easy task since the British had failed miserably to establish adequate defensive positions in the strategically vital bottleneck at Mersa Brega, a strip of land only eight miles wide between the sea and impassable salt marshes, which was the key to the whole of Cyrenaica. With his forces depicted by Churchill's decision to send troops to Greece, and thinking that the Germans would be unable to mount an offensive for several months, partly because of misleading intelligence gleaned from 'Enigma' decrypts, Wavell had left a minimum force of inexperienced troops in Cyrenaica. With obsolete and lightly armoured tanks and inadequate anti-tank guns, they were in no position to stand up to the Panzer IIIs and IVs. The British excused their decision to withdraw by claiming that they were trading space for time, but they had allowed Rommel to get through the defile and he now could make full use of his numerical superiority.

Wavell recalled O'Connor, the finest of his generals, who was on

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