The Desert War: Gaming WW2 in North Africa Part Three – Pushing the Envelope

August 31, 2015 by crew

Once more we venture into the deserts of North Africa, discussing and recreating some of the decisive battles that took place here during World War II. For those just joining us, we took an overview of the Desert War’s origins in Part One, and then reviewed some of both sides’ early successes in Part Two. Now both sides are pushing the envelope, bringing in still more forces and driving them as far and as fast as they possibly can.

Care to join us? Do you have what it takes to engage and defeat an elusive and ferocious enemy, assuming the desert doesn’t kill you first?

Artillery

As we saw in Part Two, Rommel wasted no time in making an impact when he arrived in Africa. With only a handful of units from his 5th Light Division (the first battalions to get off the boat), he launched a blitz in March and April of 1941 that regained all territory the Allies had just taken in Libya. British forces took a terrible beating and their commander, General Richard O’Connor (the hero of Operation Compass), was captured along with much of his staff.

With O’Connor doing his best to enjoy German hospitality, his boss General Archibald Wavell had to take charge personally. Wavell’s forces in Egypt were still terribly weak, however, thanks in part to Allied commitments against the Germans in Greece and the Italians in East Africa (Abyssinia, Eritrea, and Somalia). Nevertheless, just a month after taking command, Wavell went on the offensive against Axis positions in Libya with Operation “Brevity.”

Plan Of Attack

As we can see in the above map, the Desert War swung wildly back and forth through the summer months of 1941. Brevity, Skorpion, Battleaxe, none of these attacks achieved significant gains. Meanwhile the 9th Australian Division (and other units) held out in Tobruk, withstanding repeated Axis attacks for month after month, all while standing astride the only easy road Rommel could use to draw supplies from depots in Benghazi and Tripoli.

The Push

Finally, Wavell’s replacement, General Claude Auchinleck, came up with a plan to break through to Tobruk once and for all. He called his attack Operation “Crusader.”

OPERATION CRUSADER

For our fifth game, we tried to recreate part of the wild, confused, free-wheeling combat that so typified Operation Crusader. We selected an engagement on November 27th, where exhausted remnants of the 15th Panzer Division once AGAIN raced toward Sidi Rezegh to prevent a New Zealand breakthrough to Tobruk. Here the Germans were caught between elements of the 22nd Armoured Brigade in the west and 4th Armoured Brigade from the south.

The Battlefield

If it looks like our tables are getting more crowded with tanks, it’s not your imagination. The Crusader battles were fought with much larger forces than previous Desert War because both sides had feverishly built up forces through the summer and fall of 1941. For starters, the British “Western Desert Force” (already upgraded to the XIII Corps) was finally upgraded to the Eighth Army everyone remembers in the desert.

Tank Assault

Rommel, meanwhile no longer commanded the Afrika Korps. His 5th Light Division had been upgraded to the 21st Panzer, and a new 90th Light Division had arrived. Also, most Italian forces in North Africa were formally placed under Rommel’s command. Thus, the “Afrika Korps” was now only part of Rommel’s newly-minted “Panzergruppe Afrika.” So, technically speaking, Rommel only commanded the Afrika Korps for about five months.

The Afrika Korps (currently the 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer, and 90th Light Divisions, plus attached support units) was actually now commanded by the very capable General Ludwig Crüwell. Rommel and Crüwell were known to disagree violently at times, but together they made a formidable team when faced with a crisis.

Armoured Assault

Operation “Crusader” was an undeniable success, relieving Tobruk and ending its 241-day siege (the 9th Australian had been evacuated by sea and replaced some time ago with the 70th Infantry and 32nd Tank Brigade, along with the Polish 1st Carpathian Brigade and the 11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion). By the time the Allies were finished on December 30th, Rommel had been tossed all the way back where he started at El Agheila just eight months before.

Churchill pressed Auchinleck to push further, but Commonwealth supply lines (stretching 650 miles back to Alexandria) yanked them to a halt like dogs at the end of iron chains.

Smoking Wrecks

Rommel, meanwhile, was now much closer to his supply base at Tripoli, a factor which helped his counterattack just two months later (January, 1942). Yet AGAIN the British were pushed back across Cyrenaica, although this time they managed to halt the Germans and Italians short of Tobruk.

Map Close Up

The line settled near a town called Gazala, where Rommel would soon achieve his greatest, and perhaps most flawed, battlefield masterpiece.

GAZALA – THE RAZOR’S EDGE

Rommel’s offensive started well. After smashing through the 7th Armoured Division, his “right hook” got behind the British easily enough. But Rommel had pushed too far behind the Allies. Soon it was difficult to tell who was “cutting off” who, the armies were like two wrestlers who had each other in a headlock.

The matter was now of brute force and determination, with survival going to whoever choked out his opponent first. This “gut check” was the battle selected for Game 06, with the Germans and Italians trying to chew their way through the British 150th Brigade…chew their way out of a trap of their own making.

Second Battle

Eventually Rommel did break through, re-opening a route back to his own lines and routes of supply. Just like that, his pocket (already known as “The Cauldron”) had become a salient, pushing into the Gazala Line. The British launched an attack at this salient (after giving Rommel plenty of time to dig in), but this Operation “Aberdeen” was an absolute disaster.

The British soon mounted another semi-organized attack, but German signal intelligence intercepted the message and Rommel was able to lay the perfect trap with 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer, 90th Light Division…virtually all his armour. Suffice it to say the British Tank Corps still remembers June 13, 1942 as “Black Saturday.”

In The Dust

Another part of the Gazala battle that deserves mention is Bir Hacheim. Looking back at the map, we can see where this fortified “box” is the point around which Rommel’s whole army must swing. Well, the 1st Free French Brigade under General Pierre Koenig thought otherwise, and for two weeks held up the bulk of two divisions (90th Light and Italian “Trieste”). Some of these “French” soldiers were actually from Senegal, Equatorial Africa, and Madagascar.

Eight miles to the north, another position was similarly defended near Bir el Harmat by Major Liebmann and 400 Jewish volunteers recruited from British Palestine. After their protracted and heroic defence was finally overcome, Hitler ordered that “political refugees” among the prisoners be executed. To his credit, Rommel ignored the order.

Air Strike

Sadly, Gazala was the end of the road for General Ludwig Crüwell, commander of the Afrika Korps. Flying over the battlefield, he was brought down by British ground fire and captured. Despite this, and learning that his wife had passed away back home, he still kept his keen wit. When brought as a prisoner back to an opulent hotel in Cairo, he cracked: “What a fine headquarters for Rommel this will make!”

Ruined Armour

The Battle of Gazala could have easily destroyed Panzerarmee Afrika and ended Rommel’s career. Instead it was their greatest success, and wound up basically destroying the better part of Eighth Army. Tobruk fell quite easily this time, Churchill recalls it as one of the darkest personal days of the war. Hitler, meanwhile, promoted Rommel to Field Marshal, but as Rommel confessed to wife: “I wish he’d have given me another division instead.”

Now, against orders, Germany’s youngest field marshal pushed his advantage. Ignoring the vehement protests of his superiors, he re-invaded Egypt, smashing a British defence at Mersa Metruh and pushing all the way to a tiny desert railroad town called El Alamein.

He’d rolled his “risk dice” yet again and this time…he wouldn’t be getting away with it.

James Johnson

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"Rommel and Crüwell were known to disagree violently at times, but together they made a formidable team when faced with a crisis..."

"Soon it was difficult to tell who was “cutting off” who, the armies were like two wrestlers who had each other in a headlock..."