Hitler’s North African Campaign

Afrika KorpsDuring this period (1939-41), Adolf Hitler launched another military endeavor that he failed to win in time – and ultimately lost (during the “Beaten”) period. The North African campaign.

This campaign started on February 6th, 1941 with Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower) – the dispatch of German troops to North Africa and ended with the surrender of German and Italian troops to the victorious Allies on May 13th, 1943.

This campaign (a relatively local war, actually) was not won – and ultimately lost by the Wehrmacht – due to a number of strategic blunders committed by Adolf Hitler (first as a politician, then as a military commander).

His first blunder was committed on November 6th, 1937 when fascist Italy joined the so-called Anti-Comintern Pact (which was a very bad idea from the start). By bringing Italy into this agreement, Adolf Hitler violated the core principle of alliances that he put forward in Mein Kampf – make alliances in only “net valuable” partners.

In other words, the partner must bring more good than harm to Germany and its armed forces. With Italy it was exactly the opposite – overall, it drained more resources from the Wehrmacht than it provided for ostensibly the common cause – defeat and destruction of the Soviet Bolshevist state (it was the Anti-Comintern Pact, after all).

The whole mess in North Africa started on June 10th, 1940, when Italy declared war on Great Britain. Which was a very stupid thing to do because only a total idiot (in a political and military sense, of course) would declare war unless he has a very clear understanding of how to win the war (and what exactly the victory is).

Mussolini had neither – and neither did Hitler (undoubtedly it was the latter who persuaded Mussolini to enter the war that Germany was fighting with Great Britain).

The only strategic objective of the Italian forces in North Africa that made sense was to seize the Suez Canal (strategically important supply route between Great Britain and its colonies) by advancing along the Egyptian coast.

However, there were two fundamental problems with this objective. First, although the loss of Suez Channel would have hurt Britain, it would not severe completely this vital supply route – the journey will simply take a lot longer, but the ships will still reach their destination.

Second, even the huge 10th Italian Army (215,000 men) did not have enough resources to defeat the opposing forces (60,000 British and 40,000 Free French troops). Especially given the fact that the British and the French were far better fighters, were much better organized, more competently commanded, had a much higher morale and a far better military hardware.

Hence it is no surprise that after numerous delays (the norm for Italian military planning at that time), the scope of the offensive was reduced to an advance as far as Sidi Barrani, (a town in Egypt, near the Mediterranean Sea, about 100 km east of the border with Libya) with subsequent attacks on British forces in the area.

It is no surprise either that on December 9th, 1940 British and other Commonwealth and Allied forces (who had had enough of the Italians) launched Operation Compass, attacking Italian forces in western Egypt and Cyrenaica.

In two months is was all over. The Allies essentially destroyed the 10th Italian Army, taking over 138,000 Italian and Libyan prisoners, hundreds of tanks, and more than 1,000 guns and aircraft, against British losses of 1,900 men killed and wounded.

And that’s when Adolf Hitler committed his second – far more disastrous – strategic blunder. He got his Wehrmacht into the North African mess – without either a strategic objective that made sense or resources to achieve any strategic objective.

He was driven by fear (rightly considered the eighth deadly sin) that if Wehrmacht does not intervene and save the Italians, the British and Free French will ultimately accumulate enough resources to invade Italy and one way or the other force it out of the war. Which would mean that Germany would lose its largest European ally at best and acquire an additional powerful enemy at worst.

Adolf Hitler miscalculated. In reality, without American support the British and Free French (even combined) did not have sufficient resources for a successful invasion (via amphibious landing – there was no other way) of Italy.

Or even Greece. Operation Lustre – the movement of British and other Allied troops (Australian, New Zealand and Polish) from Egypt to Greece in March and April 1941, in response to the failed Italian invasion and to counter the looming threat of German intervention was a dismal failure.

And if Allies got the American support, German invasion would not matter – given the requirements of the inevitable war with the Soviet Union, Wehrmacht would have never possess enough resources to win the war – Allied superiority in resources would become decisive and irreversible.

Hence the only workable strategy to remedy the Italian disaster in North Africa would have been the following: (1) launch and win a blitzkrieg with the Soviet Union; (2) keep the USA out of war in Europe; and (3) use (1) and (2) to force Great Britain to sign peace treaty with Germany on latter’s terms (which would have included sufficient territorial gains for Italy).

Unfortunately for Hitler (and quite predictably), he failed on two first counts. And thus not only (inevitably) failed on the third, but also predictably lost his North African campaign.

 

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